Herbal Medicine Can Help Reduce High Demands on Hospitals

An article in yesterday’s New Zealand Herald , reports that Auckland City Hospital is struggling to cope with a huge increase in demand which has seen almost 200 people coming through the emergency department every day. This increase in patients (7% up on those treated at the same time last year) has also been experienced by a large number of hospitals throughout the country, at a time of year when the impact of seasonal illnesses such as influenza, has yet to manifest.

While New Zealand’s population growth is a contributory factor, A&E departments are seeing a higher proportion of sicker and older people than in the past, as well as chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer that were less common in days gone by. Additionally, the impact of prolonged poverty and poor diets in too high a proportion of NZ’s population, continues to be avoidable catalysts to a need for emergency hospital services.

The fact that Auckland Hospital’s capacity has been in the high 90’s and has hit 100% a couple of times recently, combined with more and more seriously sick patients requiring treatment, is cause for alarm. Should an influenza epidemic or major disaster occur during the next few months, the ability for existing healthcare services to cope with the sudden increase in additional demand, is in serious doubt. Given the huge and growing pressures they are under, many nurses, doctors, and other healthcare professionals are already close to breaking point, and it is therefore, essential that we reflect upon how this unacceptable situation can be addressed.

Herbal Medicine (Phytotherapy) is the oldest and most used form of medicine in the world. While like most people I am extremely grateful to be living in an age where drugs such as antibiotics and modern medical interventions can treat conditions that once would have resulted in an early death, it is time for the potential contribution of plant-based medicine to human wellness and many common illnesses, to be better recognised.

Evidence for the therapeutic benefits of many herbs and plants incorporated into the diet or an overall treatment approach has increased exponentially in recent years, and to not take this evidence seriously, will be to our peril. A vast body of science suggests that a phenomenal number of plants can either enhance our resistance to and reduce our risks of a wide range of illnesses, or reduce our over-dependence on drug and hospital treatments.

While a large number and diverse array of herbal products are easily obtained from retail outlets or online from e-commerce sites, and many of these are appropriate to take for minor ailments or to help prevent illnesses such as headaches, stomach upsets, colds and the flu, other herbs and a more systematic treatment for more serious or chronic conditions, are best accessed through consulting a properly trained medical herbalist. Such practitioners in New Zealand generally spend 3 or 4 years in full-time training within accredited institutions to study physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, diagnosis and nutrition, and how to prescribe herbal medicines and avoid adverse herb-drug interactions, and most are professional members of the New Zealand Association of Medical Herbalists (NZAMH) . In the same way that we go to a cardiologist for a comprehensive check-up and full diagnosis before being prescribed medications for a heart condition, the professional medical herbalist should be regarded as the specialist we consult before taking herbs for any serious, chronic or debilitating illness.

Apart from their skills in prescribing effective herbal medicines, medical herbalists and naturopaths can make a significant contribution to encouraging healthier diets, lifestyles and other activities that could have a large impact on reducing the number of hospital admissions and pressure on A&E services.

Last week I gave a presentation to a Brisbane conference organised by the Naturopathic and Herbalists’ Association of Australia (NHAA), on the subject of Ginkgo, Ginger and Ginseng, and their use as adjunctive herbs alongside conventional medicine. These are just 3 herbs for which there is compelling evidence that taking them together with various drugs for conditions including dementia, schizophrenia, infectious disease and diabetes, is not only more effective, but can also reduce drug-related adverse effects, and have pharmacoeconomic benefits through reducing the dependence on costly conventional healthcare services. These are just the tip of the iceberg in what else we can achieve through proper and professionally supervised combinations of herbs with drugs, and more research funding and clinical trials are warranted.

As with all health professionals, however, regulation by government to ensure that an adequate standard of service is provided and that the practitioner works in a professional and ethical manner with his or her patient, is essential. The NZAMH is a body that recognised this need a long time ago, and first applied in 2007 for statutory regulation under the Health Practitioners’ Competence Assurance (HPCA) Act (legislation which regulates a number of different health practitioner professions). While this application was subsequently accepted by the then Minister of Health, Pete Hodgson, with a change in government and revision of the HPCA Act soon afterwards, NZAMH was told a new application was needed. A resubmitted application was made to the government in early 2015, but disappointingly, there seems to have been little progression of it since that time.

During World War 2, when New Zealand’s access to many drugs and conventional medicines was under threat, much ground-breaking and valuable research was undertaken into the phytochemistry and bioactivities of many of our indigenous flora and fauna. With our hospitals now close to bursting, not to mention an alarming global increase in antibiotic resistance, the time has now come for policy makers, health funding providers, other health professionals and politicians, to again cast their attention to the enormous contribution that herbal medicine can make to our current and future healthcare services.

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