A voice for
herbal medicine

We share traditional, scientific and practical insights written by experienced herbalists and health experts from the world of herbal medicine and natural health

← Back to Insights

Beyond Pills campaign: A call for herbal activism?

  • Simon Mills
    Simon Mills

    I am a Cambridge medical sciences graduate and have been a herbal practitioner in Exeter since 1977. In that time I have led the main professional and trade organizations for herbal medicine in the UK and served on Government and House of Lords committees. I have written standard textbooks used by herbal practitioners around the world, including with Professor Kerry Bone from Australia.

    I was involved in academic work for many years, co-founding the University of Exeter pioneering Centre for Complementary Health Studies in 1987 (where we built a complementary research and postgraduate teaching programme from scratch), then at Peninsula the first integrated health course at a UK medical school, and the first Masters degree in herbal medicine in the USA, at the Maryland University of Integrative Health.

    I am particularly fascinated by the insights we can distill from the millions of intelligent people who over many centuries needed plants to survive. Mostly I want to learn and share the old skills, to experience healing plants as characters, that can help us fend off ill health. My passion for offering people tools to look after themselves and their families has led me to work with the founders of the College of Medicine on pioneering national self care and social prescribing projects. I am now the College Self Care Lead and also Herbal Strategist at Pukka Herbs.

    Listen to our Herbcast podcast with Simon Mills as the host.

  • 11:37 reading time (ish)
  • Herbal Projects Safety

In an effort to reduce unnecessary prescriptions and promote selfcare, herbal medicine has much to offer — so, how can we step forward to support the campaign?

Beyond Pills campaign A call for herbal activism

In June 2022, one of the UK’s leading advocates of integrated health, the College of Medicine, launched the Beyond Pills Campaign — calling for urgent government intervention on over-prescribing in the NHS. This followed the Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for England, Dr Keith Ridge’s National Overprescribing Review, which, even from the perspective of his post, found that perhaps 10% of drugs (110 million items) dispensed in primary care were inappropriate, unnecessary and could do harm, including causing premature death (1).   

Beyond Pills campaign has the following mission:

To move UK healthcare beyond an over-reliance on pills by combining social prescribing, lifestyle medicine, psychosocial interventions and safe deprescribing. As well as reducing unnecessary and inappropriate prescribing, this integrated approach will improve outcomes and reduce health inequalities (2).

Over the intervening years a growing number of enlightened doctors and politicians have lent their support. On the face of it, this would seem a golden opportunity for the herbal community to step up and offer their contributions to reducing unnecessary prescriptions. In fact, such conversations have barely happened. It even looks like we are nowhere to be seen. What are we not doing right and what could we do differently?

‘Beyond Pills’: The herbal hurdles

An obvious challenge for the herbal sector is in the name of the campaign itself. It is difficult for our advocacy to overlook the fact that the vast majority of herbal consumption is in the form of ‘pills’, the tablets and capsules that are the stock material of the supplement industry.  For many otherwise supportive medical professionals these ‘pills’ have even less to commend them than many pharmaceuticals, as they generally have much less evidence of efficacy and in some users may even encourage a pill-taking habit. A prescribing physician is unlikely to commend that a patient on inappropriate antidepressants take a herbal supplement when there are no guidelines that they will adequately help. They will also be aware of cautions against the use of St John’s wort, the one proven to be helpful for depression, for its potential interactions with other medications.

Beyond Pills logo

A counter point is that in themselves herbal supplements are not dangerous or addictive. However, their role in the prescribing lexicon will essentially be that of placebos, and professional practice guidelines are extremely wary of placebo prescription. The simple reality is that such options barely make it into discussion with medical professionals. 

Unfortunately, the next option, recommending visits to a herbal practitioner, have not got off the ground either. The herbal experience of collaboration with registered health professionals is extremely limited, with only a handful of practitioners working within an NHS environment. Anecdotal reports are that even these do not engage with the day-to-day work of other professionals. Somehow the message is not getting through that we can be useful. We have not found a way to engage with conventional prescription calculations. One reason may be because we are perceived as competitive prescribers. Other complementary practitioners such as acupuncturists and osteopaths may have had a bit more luck because their modalities do not compete. Also, how do we counter the argument that although many practitioners dispense herbal medicines in formulations other than pills, they are still prescribing, and so perpetuating dependence?  

Nor have we succeeded yet in making the case for a different kind of prescription, not tied to combating a symptom, instead working on nudging underlying healing processes. It’s a big message to get across. A personal experience of taking workshops with doctors is that they can ‘get it’ on the day but there is still a huge step to factoring it into their busy practice lives afterwards.

To meet the new healthcare agenda, we should redefine the herbal medicine offer. The gauntlet has been thrown down!

Simon Mills

I am a Cambridge medical sciences graduate and have been a herbal practitioner in Exeter since 1977. In that time I have led the main professional and trade organizations for herbal medicine in the... Read more

Sign up to our Newsletter

Sign up to our newsletter to receive the very latest in herbal insights.

Sign up to our newsletter