x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

#healthy living: Demand for natural medication brings better regulation

In the run-up to a conference on complementary and alternative medicine by Arab Health in Dubai next week, we examine the popularity and rising credibility of non-conventional medical treatments.

Reiki, a treatment based on the exchange of energies, is provided by therapists at The DNA Center for Integrative Medicine & Wellness on Saadiyat Island. Mona Al-Marzooqi / The National
Reiki, a treatment based on the exchange of energies, is provided by therapists at The DNA Center for Integrative Medicine & Wellness on Saadiyat Island. Mona Al-Marzooqi / The National

Thirty years ago, in the western world, popping vitamin supplements or seeing a naturopath were for those seeking an alternative lifestyle. To visit a natural-health practitioner was considered foolish and a risk to your health. Why would you when western medicine had the answers to everything? Just take this pill and your symptoms will vanish.

But over time things have changed. People are choosing a more natural method of health care, one in which they have greater control over the treatment and, presumably, fewer side effects.

Across Asia, therapies such as Chinese medicine and Ayurveda have been normal and valid forms of health care for centuries, treating everything from infertility to toothache, and, increasingly, modern medicine is also turning to these ancient and traditional therapies as a way of complementing the doctor’s toolkit.

While there has been an explosion of complementary and natural therapies in the UAE in recent years, it is not a new concept. In 1996 the Zayed Complex for Herbal Research and Traditional Medicine was established in Abu Dhabi. It was established on the orders of Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, with the aim of exploring herbal and traditional therapies to complement the modern health care system.

Sassan Behjat, the founder and principal consultant of Medblend Homepathic Consultancy and Research Services in California, and the chairman at next week’s Complementary, Alternative and Integrative Medicine Conference at Arab Health, was one of four doctors working at the centre’s predecessor – the Abu Dhabi Centre for Herbal Medicine in the early 1990s. “Historically, the UAE was at the forefront of complementary medicine [in the region],” he remembers. “We had a Chinese doctor, I practised homeopathic medicine and there was also Islamic medicine [at the centre].”

The mere fact that Arab Health, the world’s second largest health-care exhibition and congress, has a conference dedicated to traditional, complementary and alternative medicine (TCAM) is an indication of the increased popularity and importance of this form of treatment.

“This is not the first time we’ve had a complementary medicine conference at Arab Health,” Behjat says. “We started many years back, but then stopped for three years and started again three years ago. Previously the focus was on homeopathic medicine because there was more acceptance here.”

This year, however, the Dubai conference, which brings together medical industry professionals from more than 150 countries, is looking at factors that give the industry more credibility and reliability, such as teaching practitioners about data collection and gathering evidence as well as developing the skills to write and publish reports. This is important, Behjat says, because it allows practitioners to share their research and knowledge for others to “use, evaluate or reject”. It also allows information specific to the region to be disseminated. Similarly, next week’s conference also gives people working in the field a chance to learn about the latest research and findings. “There will be a German doctor [Gunver Kienle] discussing the role of herbal medicine in the treatment of cancer. A Chinese doctor [Jason Hao] will talk about scalp acupuncture, which is becoming very popular, and we’ve got Dr Abdullah [Alabdulgader] from Saudi Arabia talking about how to regulate your heartbeat to avoid stress. If we can learn how to control our emotions and stress, we can reduce our ­[dependence on] medicine.”

While TCAM is becoming more mainstream, it hasn’t always been the case, but Behjat believes the way it has been integrated in the UAE sets standards across the Middle East, particularly in regard to licensing and regulation of clinics and practitioners.

“Governments have two choices – they can ignore the demand and not regulate the industry, or they can do what the UAE Ministry of Health has done and regulate complementary medicine. Now, all practices must be licensed in the UAE,” he says.

“Complementary medicine is integrated now, so it is not hidden behind closed doors. There has been an increased demand so we are now seeing more conferences, think tanks and it’s gradually developing. The UAE is the first country in the Middle East to do this. “Previously – five or six years ago – it was hard to regulate the industry in the UAE, but now every practice must be registered. In the UAE, you can’t operate a health-related practice without a licence.”

While regulations vary around the world, the rules in the UAE can be tougher than in some other countries. “In California, for example, no licence is needed [to practise complementary medicine], as long as you don’t say you’re a doctor or make claims about curing conditions,” Behjat elaborates. “In Arizona, you need to be a medical doctor if you want to practise homeopathy. In the UK there are two types of homeopaths – medical doctors who have done homeopathy as postgraduate study and those who are non-medical-qualified homeopaths. There is a society that regulates them.”

In the UAE, if you practise one of the eight or nine specialisations of complementary medicine without a licence from the correct authorities, you risk being sent to jail. Patients seeking complementary, alternative and natural therapies can ask to see the clinic’s licence if they are in any doubt over the standards of care provided.

But there are other ways the UAE has regulated the industry. For example, Behjat recommends people buy vitamin supplements only from a pharmacy because of the strict regulations pharmacies must meet to be able to stock any product.

“In the UAE, people cannot just import pharmaceutical products. If something is in a bottle with a label that states the dosage and indications, it is considered ­medicine. You can go to a grocery store and buy garlic and eat it, but if you put that garlic into a capsule, put it in a bottle with indications and dosage, then it becomes medicine.

“Every product in a pharmacy has been registered by the Health Authority or the Ministry of Health, and registration in the UAE is tough. It can take months to get a product registered and once it’s registered there is a duty of care. A pharmacist must inform the health authority if they have received a complaint about one of their products. “People can be certain of the quality of the medicines and natural products that are sold at pharmacies.”

And if you were ever in doubt about the demand for natural, alternative and complementary therapies and treatment in the UAE, Behjat says you need only walk into a pharmacy and see how much space is allocated to supplements and natural products. “People are now going to pharmacies and asking for natural products to treat a sore throat, a cough or a tummy ache. They are saying: ‘I want natural treatments’ and there’s a variety of different channels people have access to.”

The interest in natural therapies and treatment is not confined to certain sectors of the community either, as Behjat has discovered during decades of work in the UAE. In the early 1990s, he worked with a professor at Al Ain University to research and publish a paper on the prevalence of complementary medicine in the UAE. “We found that those from higher economic backgrounds, with higher education, mostly women, aged 25 to 45, and many UAE nationals were interested in natural therapies,” he says.

“In 2005, YouGov did a survey for Dubai Healthcare City and found the same thing – higher education and income. The difference in 1991 was that there was not the same access to the internet that there was in 2005 and so this has made a difference.”

Research has shown that women are more inclined to seek natural therapies. “They feel it’s safe and they care for their health. Men usually want something that works quickly and are not as concerned about side effects.”

Behjat has also found that there are three main categories of people who seek natural treatments. “One type is those who are suffering from a chronic condition or highly allergic reaction, or a mild seasonal condition, such as eczema, or they get coughs and colds regularly. They’d usually turn to natural treatment if they’ve not had successful treatment from a medical doctor,” he says.

“Another type is those who are naturally orientated. They’ve been using natural therapies for years so they search for natural ­treatments. They will ask for camomile, sage or natural remedies for lowering blood pressure. They might be used to buying and using different herbs from India, so naturally, here they are inclined to seek natural treatment for any condition. They have full faith.”

The third category, according to Behjat, is those who are advised by their medical doctor to take a certain vitamin, mineral or homeopathic medicine to assist their recovery or to reduce side effects.

He is also adamant that if someone has a “surgical condition”, their homeopath or complementary medicine practitioner cannot interfere with the treatment of the hospital. “That’s why it’s called complementary and not alternative medicine in the UAE. It should complement the ­treatment given by a medical doctor.”

And finally, Behjat has a few pieces of advice for anyone seeking natural treatment. “Only buy sealed medicines and supplements from a pharmacy. If it’s sealed you know the quality has been maintained. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion from a licensed complementary practitioner,” he says. “You may be taking a treatment that was recommended for you in another country, but someone based here will have the local knowledge of the products available here and the types of conditions seen here. They may see 20 to 30 patients a day, so they have a lot of experience.

“Always tell your medical doctor what kinds of natural treatments you are taking because they may interfere with your other medicines, and if you are pregnant or nursing, make sure that what you are taking is suitable and safe for your child.”

• For more #healthyliving tips, visit www.thenational.ae/arts-lifestyle/well-being

atomlinson@thenational.ae