Is the popularity of CAM simply a new age fashion for everything “natural”? Does its focus on the prevention of illness feed the health obsessions of the “worried well”? Or could it be a sign of our growing dissatisfaction with medical science which often can’t provide a quick fix? What’s the attraction?
In a stroll down the streets of a typical English town, we see a snapshot of the popularity of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). We meet Mary, the housewife turned reflexologist working from home, the “swish” new alternative health centre with osteopaths and homeopaths, and the local chemist who sells aromatherapy oils and homeopathic medicines. Why do these therapists think their clients are so attracted to CAM? What’s in it for the therapists themselves? Why would a GP like Dr Kathy Ryan train as a homeopath? Why do so many therapists seem to adopt CAM as a second career – how much of the attraction is down to the lucrative business aspects? We hear from therapists and users of CAM across cultures, building up a picture of the range of reasons people have for adopting it. We ask why the western world has adopted so many ancient therapies traditionally associated with non-western cultures - from Chinese medicine to Ayurvedic or Shiatsu massage.
How is the resurgence in popularity of CAM linked to orthodox medicine? Since 1899, when the first synthetic drug, aspirin, came onto the market, modern medicine has amassed an impressive armoury of effective pharmaceuticals and surgical techniques to help with specific conditions and symptoms. But as we hear from doctors and patients, medicine is still impotent when it comes to dealing with many common, chronic diseases such as back pain, arthritis and asthma. And in its love affair with science, has modern medicine lost its soul? Does CAM somehow offer what medicine is missing? We sit in on two consultations for eczema – one five minutes long with a GP, ending in a prescription for steroid creams; the other a 45-minute session with a homeopath, ending with a tailor-made homeopathic remedy.
We hear from interested researchers and commentators about their theories, and question their evidence. For example, the General Medical Council seem to blame the success of CAM on an “anti-science” culture, propagated through inaccurate and unbalanced science reporting in the media. But is that an accurate characterisation of the complex relationship between the media and CAM/orthodox medicine? Dr Thurstan Brewin suggested to the House of Lords Select Committee that CAM’s popularity is dictated by fashion, a renewed interest in the paranormal, and the growing numbers of “worried well” who, despite the longer and safer lives we now lead, are obsessed with their health. Whatever its popularity now, will CAM still be around in 100 years time?
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First broadcast: Tuesday 21 Sep 2004 on BBC Radio 4