Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Alternative Solutions for Alternative Medicine

Oh no! Alternative Medicine! It’s all OOGABOOGA! Witchcraft, I tell you! We can’t be teaching that in our universities, and particularly alongside genuine doctoring courses with science and stuff!

So says the Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM), in their call for Australian universities to abandon teaching alternative and complementary therapies.

Well boo hiss, is my response, and it should be the response of all health care consumers in Australia. It’s important to remember that that’s what we are: we are consumers of health care; we have the right to make our own, informed decisions about our health care options. If our natural therapists aren't sciencey enough, don't kick them out of university; help them to learn, to research, to assess and to develop.

I’m not anti-medicine or anti-science. In fact, I rely on modern “scientific” medicine to keep me sane. I’m also a consumer and past student of one of those alternative therapies. My life is proof that scientific “Western” medicine can and should co-exist with alternative therapies, and the argument that alternative therapies shouldn’t be taught in universities is bizarre.

Unfortunately for FSM and for the alternative therapists is that their argument here has become so twisted that it now appears to be fighting against the very thing it’s campaigning for.

FSM aren’t against natural and alternative therapies. The doctors don’t want to remove our access to alternative therapies. They are just against teaching some of them - the more alternative of the alternatives -  in universities.

But hang on – does it make a difference? If you’re at the end of your tether and have decided to try some kinesiology because your GP wasn’t able to help with your migraines, do you care whether your kinesiologist has a qualification from a university? No – you just want your migraines to stop.

Just what do these scientists know about alternate therapies? My guess is that they probably know less about natural therapies than they know about modern architecture, project management or drama teaching. The FSM seems to want to restrict access to education and research about something it doesn’t understand.

Isn’t the point of universities to educate and provide a framework for research?

Generally, lobbyists have an agenda. What is the objective of the FSM? What’s the end game? I went in search of an official FSM Mission Statement. Here’s what I found:

"to reverse the current trend which sees government-funded tertiary institutions offering courses in the health care sciences that are not underpinned by sound scientific evidence".

Are they trying to discredit therapies they don’t understand to protect their patients? If so – how would they know if a natural therapy would be helpful when they don’t know much about the therapy?

Perhaps they’re feeling threatened, and are simply making the first move in a turf war, in a medical Coles versus Woolworths.

We should consider pride as well. If other, “lesser” therapies are given greater status via a university qualification, does that somehow lessen the elite status of doctors? Or perhaps the FSM is trying to protect the reputation of the universities themselves.

Maybe it’s even more sinister, and this entire campaign is about protecting the financial interests of the multinational drug companies. We should ask Professor Clive J Palmer about that; he’s pretty good at conspiracy theories.

Another strike against the FSM is that this campaign against alternative therapies is rooted in an assumed lack of science. I’d argue that if science is lacking in these therapies, isn’t it the scientific community that carries responsibility to rectify that? You can’t ask an aromatherapist to conduct scientific research into aromatherapy if he doesn’t have qualifications in science. He does, however, have qualifications in aromatherapy, so perhaps the medico-scientific researchers could work with aromatherapists to develop appropriate research methods and assess results. Exposure to the rigid scientific structures within a university would surely encourage the less scientific modalities to become more scientific in their approach.

If the motivation of the FSM is the question of patient safety, I call foul. This has been trotted out for decades by the practitioners of Western medicine as a primary reason for rejecting the alternatives. They’re not safe, because they’re not tested and have no basis in science.

That argument assumes that science-based medicine isn’t harmful, and that complementary and alternative medicine isn’t effective. The arguments don’t hold up. Even the most esteemed medical scientist must concede that just because something has a scientific pedigree doesn’t make it perfect and doesn’t make it safe. Popular over-the-counter medications which have been studied for decades still have side effects. Commonly prescribed medications have been withdrawn from the market due to unacceptable risk of serious side effects. If you go into hospital for surgery, you are required to sign a form to confirm that you know what is happening to you, and what the outcomes may be, both good and bad. If you see your GP and he writes you a prescription, you’ll probably receive a Consumer Information pamphlet detailing basic information about the drug, including possible negative side effects. There are risks. Science-based medicine is imperfect.

The thing about science based medicine is that all practitioners are scientists. The same cannot be said for practitioners of alternative therapies, although in many courses, some science is incorporated.

We know that a large number of Australians choose to incorporate some form of alternative therapy into their lives. Reports vary, but range up to 75%. It’s not going away.

Rather than denigrate useful and developing modalities with terms like Voodoo Medicine and campaigns to have less scientific therapies banned from universities, why can’t universities embrace these different ideas, and use their expertise in genuine science to properly assess and develop more than one idea at a time.

What do you think? Ban them all, or work with them?
Fair enough, but why?


  1. Mrs Fitz is a GP with more than 30 years experience. One of the other doctors in her practice is an experienced and competent accupuncture practitioner and she regularly refers patients to him. She also has attended a number of national conferences on Complementary & Alternative Therapies.

    Some alternative therapies, she is happy to embrace, particularly those whose efficacy is backed up by trials and studies.

    She has discovered, however, that there are charlatans. (As in any field of endeavour, I suppose.) These people give alternative therapies a bad name. They extract extraordinary amounts of money from desperate people in exchange for water and hope.

  2. You're right about the charlatans, but will booting all alternative therapies out of the universities stop that? I fear it would make the situation worse. Thanks for the comment, Mike.

  3. Alternative medicine includes a wide range of methods. Some treatment solutions are based on ancient Chinese practices, like traditional chinese remedies and the use of certain herbal substances. Others focus on Hindu, or Ayurvedic, solutions such as diet changes, the practice of yoga exercises, and focusing the connection of mind, body, and soul.

  4. "Alternative medicine includes a wide range of methods." I agreed.

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