01 March 2010

Safety must come first in Chinese Herbal Medicine

This week has seen renewed calls for the regulation of Chinese herbal medicine in the UK. Press interest arose from a court case involving Ying Wu, a Chinese herbal medicine practitioner, who was alleged to have given noxious substances to her patient, Patricia Booth, causing her to suffer kidney failure and cancer.

At present, herbalists and traditional Chinese medical practitioners are not regulated. Anyone can set themselves up in this field of practice, with no qualifications or training, no accountability and no quality assurance monitoring of their work with the public. Many high streets across the UK have shops advertising alternative and complementary therapies, of which Chinese herbal medicine is just one. And yet, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has been warning for many years that substances offered by such practitioners can be toxic to patients, resulting in severe adverse reaction and even death. There have been numerous reports from those who have considerable expertise within the field supporting the move towards regulation, including those from the profession itself.

It strikes me as particularly poignant that this story emerged in the same week that Professor Mike Pittilo, Chair of the Department of Health Steering Group on Statutory regulation of complementary practitioners, died as a result of a long illness. Mike had for many years been arguing for statutory regulation, and was deeply concerned about the delay in reaching a decision on this. For him, as for all of us at HPC, the decision is clear. Public safety must come first. Without statutory regulation, the public are not protected, and are at risk of being harmed by a minority of practitioners who, knowingly or unknowingly, administer a toxic mix of medicines.

HPC was recommended as the regulator of choice for Chinese herbal medicine, herbal medicine practitioners and acupuncturists by the Department of Health Steering Group in May 2008. Since then, we have been working with these professional groups, discussing how regulation works and what the implications might be for them. For the vast majority of competent practitioners, there is nothing to fear from a system of statutory regulation which will ensure UK wide, consistent standards of training and practice, as well as a swift mechanism for dealing with practitioners who fall below those standards and put the public at risk.

For the sake of clients and patients, we must take decisive action to introduce greater protection for the public, before there is another patient like Patricia Booth, who suffered long term harm or worse still, a loss of life.

Anna van der Gaag