A powerful pro-science lobby group is trying to have alternative medicine axed from all well-regarded Australian universities.
The over-500-strong group called Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM) believes the courses are dangerous and useless.
For a long time now, many top-tier Australian universities have provided government supported training for Complementary Alternative Medicines (CAPS) practices. The courses teach many practices such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, chiropractic, homeopathy, naturopathy and reflexology.
Instudy reported that growth in Australian alternative medicine was around 30% per year due to great public demand. The site states that To ensure the quality and safety of medicines in Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) of the Government had established a Complementary Medicines Evaluation Committee (CMEC) to make recommendations on safety, quality and efficacy of herbal substances.
Universities in Australia still running these courses include the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), University of Sydney (USYD), Monash and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), where the debate started after a children’s chiropractic clinic was petitioned to close last year.
UTS offers an entire degree based on CAPS, the Bachelor of Health Science in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The course is only four years in length and graduates are expected to be eligible for registration under the 2012 National Registration Scheme.
USYD’s equivalent course, Master of Herbal Medicines, ceased to be offered to new students as of the beginning of this year. It previously offered similar job prospects. UNSW does not offer any of these courses at present.
Professor John Dwyer, Founder of the Australian Healthcare Reform Alliance and Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the UNSW is also heavily involved in FSM. He has written a number of articles for their cause, stating in one “that some tertiary institutes should allow ‘pseudoscience’ based courses to be offered on their campuses is unacceptable, particularly when health care is involved. To do so is to lower the standards of tertiary Institutions in this country damaging what has been an enviable reputation for excellence in scientific research and application.”
FSM are concerned that alternative medicine attempts to replace mainstream treatments, which can have a number of problematic results. They argue that if a person pursues alternative treatment, their health problems may increase in severity for the financial gain of those practitioners whose promises to cure certain ailments, FSM believe are unsubstantiated.
The FSM website lists the group’s principle beliefs. “At their best, many CAMS ameliorate only minor ailments,” says one. It states that any effectiveness of the medicine or treatment is only a product of peoples’ firm belief in, and desire for its success.
It also firmly states they believe that “at their worst, CAM interventions are unnecessarily dangerous – either because they cause direct harm or because they delay effective treatment.”
FSM co-founder, Professor Marcello Costa, personally supports this belief. He says that he is concerned that these practices are not only ineffectual, but actually harming patients.
“What we realised this year is that not only are some disciplines taught which we think are not suitable for university, but at RMIT in Melbourne this chiropractic course is associated with a clinic for infants which we think is very dangerous,” he said. “We began to object on that level and it went from there. We are right in the middle of this battle now.”
The National Herbalists Association of Australia (NHAA) disagrees with the argument put forth by FSM. Leah Hechtman, president of the National Herbalists Association of Australia, says they “believe that it needs to be reviewed and revised. We strongly support the recognition of the profession and we believe that proper training maintains the quality of complementary health care services.”
Without funded university research, avenues for discoveries that might actually give more credibility to complementary medicines will be lost. Supporters of the University courses defend their presence by pointing out that the research being conducted at Universities allows the field to develop into the modern medical world.
While the website for FSM has some provision for this approach, Professor Costa disagrees. “I think there’s plenty of information on all complementary medicines,” he says. “There’s enough information to know it doesn’t work and that it really has the same value as a strong placebo. They don’t have a leg to stand on in this case and therefore there’s no more information or research required.”
He doubts the value of any Complementary Medicines and said that alternative practitioners have been “trying to use chiropractic manipulation in different areas of medicine and have failed. What little help it provides in temporary relief of pain could probably be achieved in a regular massage.”
“I think they (FSM) are ill-informed and making a broad statement. They need to consider complementary medicines individually because you can’t group every modality together. They don’t have bad intentions but they have provided a message to the public that could cause a misunderstanding.”
Leah Hechtman believes mainstream medicine is very important and says she doesn’t think this is a matter of it being replaced by complementary treatments. “This issue is all about working together,” she says. “70% of Australians use complementary medicine and if we abolish the opportunity for complementary medicine practitioners to be educated in a university setting, we risk losing research pathways and educational opportunities for students and clinicians.”
The idea that all courses and training should be cut due to some doctors’ malpractice does not resonate with those involved in the field of Complementary Medicine. Leah thinks the angle to approach is public safety. She says that “with correct university courses, doctors will be able to discern the properly trained practitioners from those who don’t have the right credentials, ultimately making it safer for patients.”