Could acupuncture be just the medicine?
Can complementary medicine help when prescription drugs don't? Director and producer Ronan McCloskey explains what his BBC NI documentary, airing tonight, discovered
Traditionally Northern Ireland has always used more prescription drugs than anywhere else in the UK. We're fond of our medicines and we're fond of going to our doctors. The doctor has always been at the centre of our society. Attitudes, however, are changing and for decades patients are now turning to ancient forms of medicine such as acupuncture and aromatherapy — among other therapies.
In 2006 the government controversially decided to do the same and announced a new initiative — the Get Well Scheme. The trial provided complementary therapies to patients within two health centres in Northern Ireland, the Holywood Arches Health Centre in east Belfast and the Shantallow Health Centre in Londonderry, with the treatment paid for by the NHS.
Its aim was to see if complementary therapies could help the health service be more cost-effective by making patients feel better without the use of expensive prescription drugs.
It was designed to help people with problems such as depression and anxiety.
The Get Well Scheme is the subject of a one-hour documentary to be shown on BBC One Northern Ireland tonight at 9pm. I produced and directed the programme, which follows a number of patients as they find out if these therapies can, in fact, support patients in ways that conventional medicine perhaps cannot.
It is thought the propensity to use prescription drugs, in particular anti-depressants and sedatives, started during the Troubles.
By the 1980s the Government had become aware that too many prescription drugs were being taken and started the first of many television advertisement campaigns aimed at reducing their use.
By then, many had become hooked on pharmaceutical meds, with further drugs prescribed to counteract their side effects.
When we took to the streets of Shantallow in Derry we were alarmed by just how widespread the use of prescription drugs appeared to be.
Under the year-long Get Well Scheme, patients could access a range of therapies, it was hoped, that would reduce their need for medication.
They included homeopathy, acupuncture, osteopathy, chiropractic and finally aromatherapy and reflexology. These are defined as being 'complementary'; meaning they would be integrated into the health service and used by referral from the patient's GP.
This is distinct from 'alternative' therapies which we show in filming a former nurse from Ballymena who, after a cancer diagnosis, turned down chemotherapy in favour of vitamins and minerals.
These were not available on the Get Well Scheme and their use, especially with conditions such as cancer, is viewed as highly controversial.
The film contains a number of powerful female characters, opening with Boo Armstrong, a radical social campaigner from London, whose organisation won the contract to manage the scheme.
Then we meet Anne McCloskey, a straight-talking GP from the Shantallow Health Centre whose view on complementary medicine differs but changes over time.
In part, her conversion is due to the case of one remarkable patient featured in the film.
Every GP, Anne McCloskey says, has a set of what is referred to as 'heart-sink' patients; those who make the GP's heart sink as soon as they walk through the door. Some 'heart-sinks' will visit their GP as often as every second day and, no matter what the GP does, they continue to decline despite there being no clear cause of sickness.
Dr McCloskey's 'heart-sink' patient was Frances Gillen. For over two decades Frances had been suffering from depression which she says began as a result of 'Troubles-related' anxiety coupled by the stress of bringing up a large family.
In the film she recalls an incident in which she was almost hit by gunfire and, as a result, refused to leave the house for a number of years.
Frances became heavily dependent on prescription drugs and was one of the first patients Dr McCloskey referred to the Get Well Scheme and her subsequent story is a success.
We also catch up with Marie Vaughan, a former nurse who lives in Ballymena.
Marie worked within the oncology department of Guy's Hospital in London before returning to Northern Ireland.
Last year she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent two operations to remove the tumour. Marie turned down an offer of precautionary chemotherapy.
Marie's story does not fall under the Get Well Scheme but we felt it important to look at the other side of the 'combined fields of complementary and alternative medicines' debate.
The fact is many cancer patients are using therapies, often without telling their doctors.
They can be expensive and, it is argued, potentially harmful to patients.
In the programme we see Marie visiting Dr Finbar Magee, a medical doctor who specialises in alternative therapies and we also meet Dr Seamus McAleer, a consultant in clinical oncology at the Cancer Centre in Belfast City Hospital.
Dr McAleer is one of Ireland's most respected oncologists. He argues that, while certain CAM therapies can reduce pain or nausea, he has seen no evidence that suggests that alternative therapies can actively fight cancer.
The Get Well Scheme itself ended in March this year and is currently being assessed by Health Minister Michael McGimpsey and his team in Stormont. If they decide these therapies have been of help to patients the scheme could expand to provide complementary therapies to patients across Northern Ireland.
Get Well Northern Ireland, BBC One NI, tonight, 9pm