Charity Commission revises approach to charities promoting complementary medicine

After a consultation, it says it will consider the range of sources available to demonstrate public benefit, not just medical evidence that a treatment is effective

Herbal medicine (Photograph: Getty Images)
Herbal medicine (Photograph: Getty Images)

The Charity Commission has warned that some charities that promote the use of complementary and alternative medicine could face losing their charitable status after the regulator revised its approach to registering such organisations.

The commission has today published its updated approach to CAM organisations in response to a consultation it carried out last year.

It said that as part of new approach it would consider whether the registrations of existing CAM charities should be revisited, although it said it expected the vast majority would be unaffected. 

The regulator said that its approach to determining the public benefit offered by a CAM organisation had previously focused on assessing whether there was medical evidence that a treatment was effective.

It said that it would now consider "the range of evidence sources available to demonstrate public benefit and of developments in knowledge over time".

The regulator accepted that some CAM organisations did not aim to provide the same benefits to the public as more conventional medical organisations might.

"Instead, their purposes may relate to relieving suffering or providing comfort to patients, either generally or in the context of certain medical conditions," it said.

"In such situations, evidence of benefit may come in the form of outcome reports by patients or observational studies based on patient responses."

But it added that "the evidence provided must be of a type which a court would recognise".

The commission said its new approach would give the public greater confidence that a CAM charity had been able to demonstrate that it had the evidence to support the claims it made about its treatment.

It said it would consider whether "any past registrations of CAM organisations should be revisited, and whether a different decision might have been made had our updated approach been in place".

The regulator said its preliminary view was that no action would be necessary in relation to the vast majority of registered CAM charities, either because the efficacy of relevant treatment had already been demonstrated under its old approach or because it was clear this could be done under the updated framework.

But it added: "In some cases, it may be that we recommend that a registered CAM charity amend its objects so that they are limited to what can clearly be demonstrated by the available evidence.

"If it appears to us that a past registration under our previous approach may have been mistaken, in that the relevant organisation cannot properly be considered a charity, then it will be necessary to remove it from the register, in line with our statutory functions and duties."

A commission spokeswoman stressed that she expected the possibility of removal from the register would apply only to a "very small number of registered organisations". 

She said the regulator was unable to put a firm timescale on the completion of the work, but it was "mindful that this creates a degree of uncertainty for registered CAM charities, and have therefore committed to completing this work and providing greater clarity as soon as we can, while balancing this work with our other priorities".

The commission said there were about 1,000 CAM charities on its register and about 30 organisations applied to be registered as charities each year. 

The consultation came after the charity the Good Thinking Society called on it to revoke the charitable status of organisations that promoted what the society called "disproven treatments", including homeopathic remedies.

The society threatened to take legal action against the commission if it did not do so.

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