Changing the conversation about health

First rule of complementary therapy? Recognise ‘red flags’ that indicate a serious medical problem

The College of Medicine’s Dr Toh Wong, a GP trainer, discusses how complementary therapists must feel confident in reporting potentially serious conditions to doctors when necessary…

What do red flags have to do with complementary therapy?

One of the biggest concerns conventional medical doctors have about complementary therapy is regarding the safety of it.

Conventional medical doctors often question the safety of complementary therapies and it’s essential practitioners feel confident to refer back to a GP when necessary

Doctors themselves practice with a huge amount of uncertainty every day, especially primary care GPs and A&E doctors and they know that they’ll never learn everything about every condition.

What they do possess though, is a wide enough knowledge to know when and how urgently to refer something that they don’t understand or that indicates something more sinister.

In medicine, these worrying signs or symptoms are known as ‘red flags’. The College of Medicine has long supported complementary therapies on the strict condition that treatments are safe, and that therapists are adequately trained.

Basic hygiene, first aid skills appropriate for the therapies they work with, and basic good health promotion, with simple coaching techniques like motivational interviewing, are key skills that a respected complementary will have in their armory.

A new course, hosted by sports therapist Paula Esson, and consultant anaesthetist Dr David Laird, aims to bring together conventional medicine and complementary therapy

Recognising worrying signs and symptoms of a more serious condition is also hugely important.

For example, a patient exhibiting a painful back, the loss of normal bowel and bladder function (constipation, or the inability to pass urine or incontinence) may signify something called cauda equina syndrome, a medical emergency that requires spinal decompression surgery. If urgent care isn’t given, the person could end up with permanent paralysis of their lower limbs and permanent bowel/bladder dysfunction.

I want to flag up – excuse the pun – one of the few courses that does cover the ‘red flag’ topic widely. A collaboration between a complementary therapist, sports therapist Paula Esson, and consultant anaesthetist Dr David Laird, aims to bring together two worlds that should be integrating better.

The course, held throughout the year at various venues, aims at enabling complementary therapists to contribute to excellent healthcare through active listening skills underpinned by the awareness of client sentinel symptoms and behaviours (flags). Therapists will gain confidence in reporting findings to the GP or medical services.

Overlapping and integrating care successfully involves being aware of one’s own knowledge, skills, development and boundaries, as well as having an understanding of people, their symptoms, signs and underlying disease – particularly if there are red flags flying.


Dr David Laird will also be speaking about this topic at the College of Medicine’s annual Integrative Health Convention. Buy tickets here using discount code COM10