A pioneering scheme to provide free alternative therapy in one of the region's most deprived areas appears to have been a huge success. Barry Nelson reports.

FOR the last two and a half years, patients living in the Benwell area of west Newcastle have been able to have complementary therapy for free.

The pilot scheme, which covered 15 surgeries, was aimed at giving disadvantaged people access to therapy which is normally only available in the private sector and a new report complied by the therapists shows that 96 per cent of patients were satisfied with their treatment.

Patients referred by their GPs could choose from homeopathy, osteopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, therapeutic massage, Shiatsu and chiropractic on the NHS.

Six weeks after their first treatment, 68 per cent reported improvement in their illness; after six months, 58 per cent reported an improvement.

GPs have referred more than 650 people to the service. Some 41 GPs made use of it, at least one from each practice and, at present, 324 patients per year are receiving treatment.

The majority of referrals were for musculo-skeletal problems (76 per cent), particularly long-term back or joint pain. There was also a significant group of referrals with psycho-social problems (13 per cent), related to anxiety, stress or depression as well as patients referred for problems of the respiratory (three per cent) and gastro-intestinal systems (three per cent) and for headaches or migraine (four per cent). So far the total annual cost of the project is £35,800 (including an allocation of £15,000 from the Newcastle Primary Care Trust).

One satisfied patient is Gill Gibson, 47, a bank customer adviser. "I had psoriatic arthritis diagnosed when I was about 23 and had regular flare ups in my knees every summer since then," she says. "It flared up in my hands so I asked my doctor what he thought about acupuncture. He referred me to Jo. I waited about two months and by that time it had moved to my knees. I had been taking anti-inflammatory drugs but they were not really working so I was given some stronger ones which were making me quite ill.

"The problem wasn't getting any better and I was stuck taking all these drugs and having my blood monitored every month. I had six sessions with Jo and went back to the doctor to be re-referred for another six. The end result is I don't take any drugs now and I haven't had fat knees for the full year since treatment.

"I used to get instant relief," adds Gill. "I was off work for eight weeks this time last year when it was at its worst. I haven't had time off with the same problem since the acupuncture."

Another of Jo's patients, Joan Train, 49, suffered a back injury at work last year which is causing her severe pain and urinary incontinence. She was given increasingly strong painkillers for the problem.

Joan has been seeing Jo once a week for four months and is full of praise for the relief she has received. "If it wasn't for Jo, I'm sure I would be in a wheelchair by now," she says. "After a session I feel as though I could jump through hoops but as the week goes on it gradually wears off and I'm ready for the next session. I no longer use sticks and I'm only taking about two painkillers a day whereas before it was eight to 12."

Project manager Dawn Solomon says an examination of medical records of 70 patients shows there was a 31 per cent reduction in the number of GP consultations - if this was duplicated throughout Newcastle PCT area it would mean 666 fewer GP consultations (an approximate saving of £10,000).

The three-year pilot is coming to an end and Newcastle PCT must now decide whether to continue with the experiment.