Wellness treatments such as kinesiology divide opinion – but that doesn’t seem to deter patients at one pharmacy in Northern Ireland. Vincent Forrester investigates

By his own admission, the complementary therapies offered at Eoghan O’Brien’s pharmacy in Portglenone, County Antrim, are unconventional. Alongside the traditional dispensing service at Bannside Pharmacy, the contractor and superintendent pharmacist offers a ‘holistic treatment [that looks] at the whole picture of the person’.

The treatment is offered by two therapists who rent the pharmacy treatment rooms, Lelia McCormick and Roisin Armstrong, and centres on the use of kinesiology, a controversial muscle-testing technique. In practice, the therapists use it to test for food intolerances and allergies. Patients are asked to hold a vial containing a sample of an allergen or a food. If there is ‘a loss of strength in the indicator muscle’, Mr O’Brien says, this means the patient has reacted negatively to the sample.

Mr O’Brien admits the practice is not ‘scientifically validated’. Indeed, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has stated explicitly that kinesiology should not be used to diagnose food allergies in under-19s. Nonetheless, Mr O’Brien is convinced it can be beneficial to patients. He first became interested in the concept more than 20 years ago while looking for a treatment for eczema. ‘I was finding myself trapped in steroid creams, which were becoming less effective over time. I thought: “There has to be other ways of doing this.”’

A holistic approach

The pharmacy charges £50 for an hour’s assessment. Mr O’Brien says the kinesiology tests allow the therapists to identify what he calls ‘lifestyle problems’.

‘If somebody was coming in with hay fever, for example, I would say to them that some people find that reducing dairy products can help … About half the people with hay fever or any respiratory issue find that reducing dairy can help,’ he says.

He adds that some food and drink can cause histamine surges, such as the caffeine in tea or coffee. ‘When you’re taking food that is going to cause more histamine release, you’re going to become more sensitive to pollen.’

Much of the advice given at the sessions is ‘awareness-raising’, he says. ‘Someone who wants to lose weight, they’re probably mineral-deficient because they’re probably not eating well,’ he says.

‘Putting them on to a good multimineral vitamin complex, even for a few weeks, to help stabilise their blood sugars, may start to reduce their sugar cravings, then they will start to want to eat more healthily. Once they start eating more healthily, they’ve less reason for the vitamins and minerals. So it’s about steering them back on the right path and helping them to understand there’s so much you can do yourself.’

Being open to new therapies

Mr O’Brien is keen to stress that his adoption of holistic therapy is not a rejection of mainstream healthcare. He believes the two approaches are complementary.

‘[The NHS] is an absolutely wonderful health service,’ he says. ‘But when you look at your typical GP or consultant consultation, they’re under so much pressure; they’ve got 10, maybe 15 minutes. Community pharmacy is an ideal place where you’ve got a bit more time, you can have a relaxed chat with the person and give them a few solutions to help manage their health better. This dovetails nicely into that.’

Whether or not you are sceptical about holistic care, Mr O’Brien’s pharmacy is proof that there is an audience for it. Having offered the kinesiology service for two decades, he has built up a solid patient base through word of mouth. ‘The two main therapists [who work one day a week] are booked up two to three weeks in advance,’ he says.

In some respects, the service benefits from being atypical. ‘We’ve had a lot of growth in our customer base – they’re coming from 20, 30 miles away because there aren’t pharmacies near them offering services like this,’ Mr O’Brien adds.

‘As pharmacists, we tend to zone in very specifically on one particular aspect and try to supress that symptom, rather than think “Why is that symptom there and what can the person do to remove that problem, rather than having to come back repeatedly and take something for it?”

‘Our model of healthcare is trying to address causes, rather than just symptoms.’