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It’s time to integrate acupuncture into the NHS

By Mita Mistry
4 January 2019

The NHS is underfunded and staff shortages have led to an enormous and growing burden for the NHS, which is struggling to meet rising demand.

Integrating acupuncture could help alleviate some pressure and allow clinicians to focus on vital medical services. Acupuncture is not a cure-all treatment, but there is increasing scientific evidence for the conditions that it helps, with over 1,000 studies conducted annually across the world.

Evidence is robust in the treatment of pain. And since one in five people in Europe live with moderate to severe chronic pain, acupuncture could offer real improvements for patients suffering low back pain, migraine, osteoarthritis and headaches.

It has even been proven to be more effective than medication in some cases. This evidence also presents an opportunity for clinicians to consider other treatment options to help counteract the rising use of opioids.

Another area where the NHS is experiencing growing demand is mental health treatments. One in four people in the UK are affected by mental health issues and acupuncture could help. Clinical evidence shows its effectiveness in the treatment of anxiety, which affects up to one in three people.

There is also a range of other conditions , such as infertility, constipation, rhinitis and depression that can also be helped. If GPs referred patients for acupuncture for some of these conditions, NHS waiting times and pressure on the health services’s resources could potentially be reduced.

In recent years, we have seen a paradigm shift in patient expectations, with the general public being increasingly engaged in shaping their own treatment. With information now available at their fingertips they, rightly or wrongly, often self-diagnose or expect more from NHS treatments.

Patients are not as willing as they once were to listen or to automatically accept a doctor’s initial diagnosis. They want a range of treatment options, as well as second opinions and they want to feel in control of their health  – not short-changed by limited choices or frustrated by not knowing how to best take care of themselves.

Patients don’t just want medicine to fix them, they want to be able to manage the side effects of drugs, and they want answers to how they can manage their condition with lifestyle changes, diet and other treatments.

Acupuncturists are highly trained professionals who work in partnership with patients by educating them on making  lifestyle changes that help their condition and overall wellbeing to prevent further illness.

Changing habits takes time but owing to the one-to-one nature and duration of an acupuncture treatment (up to 45 minutes) and the continuity of care, it is entirely possible to help achieve this.

This would reduce the burden on GP’s since their time with a patient is limited. Thus, acupuncturists can add real value to first line GP support by freeing up resources so that medical and clinical knowledge can be utilised where it is essential.

We also know that people are turning to acupuncture more and more, with the use of it on the rise. According to a survey led by researchers at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Academic Primary Care, the usage of complementary and alternative medicine, such as acupuncture, rose from 12% of the population in 2005 to 16% in 2015.

This figure continues to rise but access is unequal as more people in higher socioeconomic groups can afford it than in lower income groups. Private acupuncture treatment can be expensive and while costs can be covered by many large private medical insurers, the treatment is not accessible to everyone.

If it was available through the NHS that would, of course, be different. We are all collectively responsible for the healthcare service and we need to start viewing ourselves as a team of healthcare professionals offering a myriad of different science-based treatments.

Acupuncture is not a replacement for medical treatments, nor is it a cure-all, but there is evidence to show that it works and that integrating it into the NHS could help take the pressure off clinicians and resources.

Mita Mistry is an acupuncturist


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