Submitting snake oil to science: next year, Switzerland's obligatory health insurance coverage will be extended to include five alternative therapies--including homeopathy and traditional Chinese medicine. Swiss News explores what this development means for all of us ...

AuteurHays, Kim
Fonction News feature

Regardless of whether you are convinced by their effectiveness, or see them as mere hocus-pocus, alternative therapies like homeopathy have generally been the preserve of people wealthy enough to pay for treatments themselves--or those with supplementary health insurance policies.

Alternative medicine for all?

All that is set to change on January 1, 2012, when new legislation will come into effect, forcing providers of compulsory health insurance to cover the following alternative therapies: homeopathy, anthroposophic medicine, phytotherapy, traditional Chinese medicine and neutral therapy.

But before you think about cancelling your supplementary policy, there are caveats to the new rules: basic insurance will only cover complementary treatments if a medical doctor provides them. In addition, the new ruling will be re-evaluated in 2017, giving the alternative treatments five years to prove their effectiveness. Otherwise, coverage will be stopped.

On May 17, 2009, 67 per cent of Swiss voters accepted an initiative that added one vaguely worded sentence to the Swiss constitution, requiring the federal and cantonal governments to be more supportive of complementary medicine. With his recent decision in favour of the five alternative therapies, Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter is responding to the will of the Swiss electorate. But health insurance is required by law to cover only treatments proven to be "effective, practical and economical" using "scientific methods". When it comes to complementary medicine, such proof is hard to achieve.

Comparing apples and bananas

The problem has been dumped into the lap of the Federal Department of Health. The government can't mandate coverage of alternative therapies--even if that seems to be what the Swiss electorate wants--unless the health department can prove their effectiveness scientifically. And, in the words of Daniel Steiger M.D., a general practitioner in Bern, "comparing standard medicine with homeopathy or anthroposophic treatments is like comparing apples and bananas because the alternative therapist is always going to say, 'We don't just fight symptoms with pills, like you do. We try to strengthen the whole person.'"

Indeed, licensed homeopath Mathias Blaser, also of Bern, cannot imagine his methods being submitted to the kind of double-blind experiments used by scientists to test the effectiveness of new drugs (these are tests in which neither the patient nor the person administering the...

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