Dr Phil Hammond, GP and broadcaster

The Independent newspaper recently reported how a disciplinary hearing of the GMC was told that "a GP interested in alternative medicine tried to treat a baby's gastroenteritis by swinging a crystal pendant over her stomach."

The GP in question Michelle Langdon has since been found guilty of serious professional misconduct and banned from practising medicine for three months. As the GMC's counsel put it: "This case is not about the merits or otherwise of complementary medicine but about the enthusiasm of Dr Langdon for it, which compromised the interests of her patients."

The key question for the GMC was whether the baby was harmed in any way, not by the swinging pendulum but by the denial of more conventional treatment for gastroenteritis.

I visited Dr Langdon's surgery a few years ago when I was filming the television series Trust Me, I'm a Doctor. Even my scepticism was dented by the drawer-load of thank you notes she's received from grateful patients. I interviewed one of them, a woman with menorrhagia, who was certain her fibroids shrank thanks to the paraphysical healing energy transmitted through her doctor's hands.

I don't buy the energy argument, and despite some individually fascinating trials purporting to show distant healing power, whenever they're replicated the amazing results just don't seem to happen.

The more obvious explanation is that all patients need time, support, concern and compassion, and for some this is magnified by the approach offered by some complementary therapy or other.

Perhaps there's a basic human need to believe in magic and mysticism, and in doctors as soothsayers and healers – rather than burnt out cynics.

Dr Langdon's enthusiasm may well have carried her patients with her, and some of the most disbelieving people can be won over by healing.

I once met a man whose job was to doubt and question everything. After struggling for years with a painful knee and undergoing three unsuccessful operations, he gave healing a go. He was staggered to find that after a few sessions of therapeutic touch (where, incidentally, the hands don't even touch the knee but hover over it), he was back playing golf.

I still say it's down to the power of belief and expectation over the human mind, rather than mysterious energy.

Some complementary therapies may make absurd claims about how they work, but many do seem to work simply by making patients the centre of attention.

My favourite study looked at two groups of children growing up in post-war German orphanages. They were of similar age and, thanks to rationing, had identical amounts of food. One group thrived, the other failed to.

The only difference was in the methods of the orphanage managers. One was warm-hearted and affectionate while the other was stern and forbidding.

So you can throw away the crystals – all patients really need is love.


Guidelines in Practice, Febuary 2003, Volume 6(2)
© 2003 MGP Ltd
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