Southampton GP Dr Peter May casts doubt over the benefits of reflexology.

The idea that the soles of our feet provide a diagnostic map of the body is strange for anyone who knows anything about anatomy and physiology. Yet this fanciful map is central to the theory of reflexology, both for giving diagnoses and treatment.

Generally speaking, the more ridiculous the idea, the more evidence is required for sensible people to believe it. Reflexology would need a great deal of strong evidence in its favour for the scientific community ever to accept it.

As one of a number of alternative diagnostic techniques, along with iridology, applied kinesiology, kirlan photography, the vega test and others, it is relatively easy to test. To date, none of them have succeeded.

Such diagnostic techniques are frankly dangerous. If they cannot do what they promise, they lead people with serious illnesses to be falsely reassured that they are well, and may cause them to delay seeking urgent medical help.

Conversely, if patients are actually well, they create enormous anxiety by falsely diagnosing disease.

Most GPs have been confronted with patients who have been told they have illnesses such as prostate cancer, diabetes or kidney disease on the basis of such bogus tests. Usually it requires a proven scientific test - at the tax payers expense - in order to reassure them.

A recent study, organised by a research department in the University of Exeter, has examined the claims of reflexology. Three reflexologists were asked to agree on six diagnoses they could easily make by massaging a patient's feet. They chose neck pain, back pain, osteoarthritis of the knee, migraine, diabetes and sinusitis.

Eighteen patients, each known to be suffering from at least one of these conditions, volunteered for the experiment. Under supervised conditions to prevent cheating, the reflexologists set about their task.

The result was that they got none of the diagnoses right and would have done as well by tossing a coin. They could not even agree their verdicts among themselves.

Admittedly, it was a small trial but it gives not a crumb of support for the idea that a body map exists on the foot. (Ironically, their chosen diagnoses are generally made quite easily. For patients with neck pain, I usually ask them if their neck hurts - a speedy, reliable and inexpensive method!)

Monday, September 25 saw the beginning of World Reflexology Week, with the foundation in London of the Reflexology Forum. This new body aims to unite reflexologists around a voluntary code of ethics and good practice, with agreed standards of training.

They hope to control their more outrageous practitioners by either imposing standards upon them or excluding them from membership. (Chiropractors have recently undergone a similar discipline.)

If the Reflexology Forum is to find any respect from the medical profession, it will have to eliminate all diagnostic claims from its members, unless they can repeatedly and convincingly pass simple tests like the one described.

When it comes to diagnosis, it is time now for reflexologists to put up or shut up.