Complementary therapies – a GP’s view

GP and Lead Physician at Bupa UK
08 November 2017

Complementary therapies are a hot topic at the moment, and people’s views on them can differ. Dr Aileen McGrane is a GP at Bupa’s Glasgow Health Centre, and worked at the Glasgow Centre for Integrative Care. She explains how they can be helpful when used in the right way.

Image of a plant and a bottle of aromatherapy preparation

What are complementary therapies?

It’s helpful to understand what the difference is between alternative and complementary therapies. Alternative therapies are ones that people use instead of conventional medicine, and complementary therapies are ones used alongside conventional medicine. Integrative care is the name given to an approach where a healthcare professional combines the use of conventional and complementary techniques to give expert and holistic care. I am increasingly seeing patients who don’t feel that conventional approaches are giving them the answers they’re looking for, and who are keen to explore complementary therapies. If these can give them benefits that conventional medicine hasn’t been able to, then why should I ask them to stop this?

Finding a complementary therapist

It’s important to access complementary therapies through a reliable practitioner. For example, you may already find that there are GPs in your local practice who have trained in therapies such as acupuncture . The British Medical Acupuncture Society trains healthcare professionals in western medical acupuncture. If I was going to get acupuncture done I would look for someone with this background medical and anatomical knowledge to make sure that it was as safe as possible This would be preferable to traditional Chinese acupuncture, which I’d consider an alternative therapy, as practitioners don’t have this level of knowledge.

Complementary therapies in practice

I have always been amazed by the placebo effect and the body’s ability to respond in ways we don’t expect. I’m not sure if this is why some complementary medicine works so well for some patients, or if there is science that we haven’t yet understood to explain the evidence behind it. I’ve certainly seen many patients who’ve reported significant benefits. I think it would’ve affected my relationship with them if I dismissed their complementary approaches as ineffective just because evidence hasn’t been published in medical journals.

If my patients get an improvement in their quality of life using complementary medicine then I would fully support them using it, as long as I’m sure that it’s safe. I’ve always been an advocate of a holistic approach. Taking the time to understand more about the problems someone is having and finding the right approach for them is important. For example, it could be that someone would benefit from dietary advice to improve their symptoms, or learning mindfulness techniques to hep mange their symptoms better.

The integrative approach

Many complementary approaches allow you as a patient more time with a practitioner to discuss how you feel. The art of medicine needs time and care to work at its best, and the therapeutic relationship you have with any healthcare practitioner can itself be an important step in helping you feel more healthy.

Many patients who use complementary medicine do not talk about this with their doctors, but the integrative approach is the safest way to use complementary therapies. With some therapies, you may not be aware of the full impact they could have on your condition, or on other treatments you’re already using. A good example of this is St John’s wort – a herbal remedy used for depression. It can interact with several medicines, leading to some serious adverse effects, and can also make hormonal contraceptives less effective.

The best advice I can give to patients is to discuss with their doctor all of the ways they’re interested in managing their health, so they can advise you on the safest way to do this. Your GP still may need to do tests and investigations and go down the conventional route of managing your symptoms. This way they’ll make sure they don’t misdiagnose or mismanage any conditions, but this usually doesn’t mean you can’t explore other options if you’re interested.


Find out more detailed information on complementary therapies, including advice on how to access them.




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Dr Aileen McGrane
GP and Lead Physician at Bupa UK

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