Ambiguity over alternative medicine funding in Wales

health boards were a little more ambiguous with their responses. Repeatedly, was informed that information about the funding was not held by the health board.

Betsi Cadwaladr LHB responded by saying “Unfortunately we do not hold this information as the Health Board does not fund or provide complementary of alternative medicine.” Hywel Dda LHB were similarly ambiguous in their response – “I regret to inform you that the information you requested is not held by this organisation. The Health Board does not support the prescribing of complementary/alternative medicines.”

On the face, this might seem like a good thing – they’re not funding or don’t support the prescribing of these unproven therapies. However, upon re-reading of these responses, both responses start; the information simply isn’t held by the health boards. Therefore, there could quite easily be funding for CAM therapies that they just don’t know about. I would have liked to have thought that the health boards know exactly what their money is being spent on.

Back to Aneurin Bevan LHB, who provided me with detailed information on which therapies they fund. They did inform me that whilst they do not have formal agreements in place for specific funding of complementary or alternative medicines, GPs “may prescribe any medication under their terms of service that have been approved by the Department of Health. They also told me that it “is not possible to identify all alternative medicines prescribed by GPs due to the way in which the prescribing data is captured.” However, they undertook an analysis of information that they did have. Here is that information:

Nutritional Supplements

Glucosamine preparations – £121,000

Melatonin – £37,000

VSL #3 Probiotic Food Supplement – £4,000

Homeopathic preparations

Abrotanum Oral Drops – £156

“Herbals”

Nytol Herbal Tablets – £121

Kalms Herbal Sedative – £7

St. John’s Wort – £41

In total, £162,325 is being wasted on treatments with little or no evidence base to support their use.

Glucosamine supplements have been studied to no positive avail. A BMJ meta-analysis of 10 trials concluded “Compared with placebo, glucosamine, chondroitin, and their combination do not reduce joint pain or have an impact on narrowing of joint space. Health authorities and health insurers should not cover the costs of these preparations, and new prescriptions to patients who have not received treatment should be discouraged.”

Evidence for St. John’s Wort is ambiguous. The Cochrane Collaboration reviewed the evidence for it and concluded “Overall, the St. John’s wort extracts tested in the trials were superior to placebo, similarly effective as standard antidepressants, and had fewer side effects than standard antidepressants. However, findings were more favourable to St. John’s wort extracts in studies from German-speaking countries where these products have a long tradition and are often prescribed by physicians, while in studies from other countries St. John’s wort extracts seemed less effective.” So there could be a cultural bias leading to more positive results for it.

The final two health boards in Wales are Cardiff and Vale University Health Board and Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board. Both fund complementary and alternative medicines, but neither provided me with details about how much money is spent on them, even after clarification from myself.

Cardiff and Vale UHB provide “limited complementary therapy modalities … for example Acupuncture as part of physiotherapy management to provide pain relief and massage techniques in the mental health service.” However, because this is provided as a package of care as opposed to stand alone therapies and no dedicated funding is provided, they cannot provide me with any details about funding.

Abertawe Bro Morgannwyg UHB informed me that they provide acupuncture and “this is provided within the physiotherapy service. This is part of the whole package of treatment following assessment by the physiotherapists. There are no separate acupuncture clinics and referrals for acupuncture alone are not accepted. Therefore as stated in our original response there is no ‘dedicated funding’ for complementary therapies and therefore we would not hold separate financial information for this.”

To conclude, it appears that the main problem with the health boards is the way in which prescribing data is captured. Aneurin Bevan LHB said it themselves – “It is not possible to identify all alternative medicines prescribed by GPs due to the way in which the prescribing data is captured.” Perhaps there needs to be a new method of capturing prescription data, to ensure that this information doesn’t fall through the cracks as it appears to be doing now.