Herbal Medicine and the NHS

Introduction

The branch of medicine currently used to deliver health care within the NHS is known as the ‘biomedical model’. The ideas behind this particular way of approaching health and disease evolved through the industrial revolution, and became consolidated in a discipline as distinct from other approaches to medicine during the 19th and early 20th century. The model, claiming exclusive use of the word ‘scientific’ to describe its own method, has distilled itself into a system of medicine that uses, as its main tool, pharmaceutical intervention at the point of pathology or crisis, to the exclusion (perhaps with the exception of surgery) of other strategies. This article will focus on one of these strategies – western herbal medicine. It will raise the questions:

  • Is herbal medicine as inappropriate to primary and secondary healthcare provision on the grounds of lack of evidence base and cost as medical orthodoxy maintains?
  • How did one model of medicine attain the ideological monopoly so as to shape the nature of our National Health Service provision?
  • Does that monopoly deliver best possible health care or serve some other vested interest?

The aim is not to argue that herbal medicine should be included within the health service above other modalities (least of all the biomedical one), but to use it as an example to explore the process, impact and consequences of other approaches being left out, and the arguments for a more pluralistic and integrated system of healthcare.

Western herbal medicine is the system of medicine from which the biomedical branched. The earliest written records of this tradition date back to the 4th century BC, though evidence suggests people throughout the world used plants as medicine for millennia before this. 80% of the world’s population still relies on herbs for their health.

A practitioner trained in western herbal medicine today in the UK may well borrow diagnostic tools from other traditions to complement and enhance her own. She will also be using diagnostic procedures and tools familiar to health service professionals – eliciting a case history, a stethoscope to listen the heart and chest, a sphygmomanometer to take blood pressure, an ophthalmoscope for looking in eyes, an otoscope for looking in ears etc. The procedure may take more time than the average health service consultation. A holistic approach will be employed that acknowledges the many different causal factors that contribute to our well being (from genetics to material reality), recognising the uniqueness of the individual; and the lack of separation between mind and body and spirit. Treatment will come in the form of advice and support with diet and lifestyle, referral to other agencies, and herbal medicines in the form of tinctures, tea, syrups, creams, ointments etc.

The question of evidence