Herbal Remedies: Issues in Licensing and Economic Evaluation
Darren M. Ashcroft
Alain Li Wan Po
In recent years, the use of alternative therapies has become widespread. In particular, there has been a resurgence in the public's demand for herbal remedies, despite a lack of high-quality evidence to support the use of many of them. Given the increasing pressures to control healthcare spending in most countries, it is not surprising that attention is being focused on the cost effectiveness of herbal remedies. We address the question of whether there is sufficient information to enable the assessment of the cost effectiveness of herbal remedies. In so doing, we discuss the current state of play with several of the more high-profile alternative herbal remedies [Chinese medicinal herbs for atopic eczema, evening primrose oil, ginkgo biloba, hypericum (St John's wort)] and some which have made the transition from being alternative to being orthodox remedies. We use historical context to discuss, on the one hand, the increasing commodification of herbal remedies and on the other, the trend towards greater regulatory control and licensing of alternative herbal remedies. We argue that unless great care is exercised, these changes are not necessarily in the best interests of patients. In order to identify cost-effective care, we need reliable information about the costs as well as the efficacy and safety of the treatments being assessed. For most alternative therapies, such data are not available. We believe that studies to gather such data are long overdue. Whilst we argue strongly in favour of control of some herbal remedies, we urge caution with the trend towards licensing of all herbal remedies. We argue that the licensing of those herbal remedies with equivocal benefits and few risks, as evidenced by a long history of safe use, increases barriers to entry and increases societal healthcare costs.
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