Stone the crows! Keep taking the tablets. There are few compliments for complementary medicine – except from the millions who use them, and the people who sell them.
In Saturday’s The Australian the excellent Cassandra Wilkinson scoffed at complementary medicine in pharmacies.[i] But she would not have had lobbyists for the two industries reaching for the chill pills. Because they know their industries are both too popular to take on.
This is not entirely easy to understand.
The Pan Pharmaceutical case, in which the Therapeutic Goods Administration had 1600 Pan products pulled off the shelves in 2003 would have killed a less loved industry.[ii] (Ultimately the courts found the TGA had exceeded its powers). [iii]
A decade on, the National Audit Office still says there is not much evidence on the effectiveness of complementary medicine available to consumers.[iv] And, while the National Health and Medical Research Council funds research into complementary medicine, it is also reviewing the “scientific literature examining the effectiveness and, where available, the safety and cost effectiveness of a number of natural therapies.” The NHMRC adds,
Within our health system, there are practices which are currently not based on good evidence … sometimes patients may be misled into rejecting practices and treatments that are evidence-based in favour of non-evidence based practices and treatments.[v]
When La Trobe University announced plans for a complementary medicine research centre, funded in large part by Swisse (“wellness products for your healthy, happy lifestyle”), the criticism was loud and long.[vi] As John O’Dwyer from the University of New South Wales put it, “We doctors need to do more to convince Australians that they cannot neutralise an unhealthy lifestyle with supplements.” [vii]
Yet the purveyors of potions make $2bn a year, selling to two-thirds of Australians, according to the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (at the University of Western Sydney, no less). This recently was 20 per cent more than out of pocket Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme costs. [viii]
Complementary medicine is also entrenched in education, with 14 universities (over a third) offering courses.[ix] While La Trobe copped a hiding, others are happy to promote their healthy relationships with the industry. Griffith University has a professional development course for pharmacists. The online program “taps into” a short course in integrative medicine from the university and is offered online by the Blackmores Institute. The university also intends to “offer new, in-depth, one-day face to face workshops that will focus on specific topics in more detail.” These “master-classes” are supported by Blackmores. Yes, that’s Blackmores, the “natural heath product company.” [x]
With popular trust and academic associates, complementary medicine is as safe as, well, pharmacies. Which are very safe indeed, what with the monopoly pharmacists enjoy under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and the ban on competition by outsiders. The industry guild has convinced governments that it is political poison to change any of this. As a former health minister, some bloke called Tony Abbott, once assured the Pharmacy Guild:
And how can anyone question a pharmacist recommending an herbal remedy for whatever ails us? After all, they learnt about it at university.
Got a hard case to make with a hostile audience. Call me for a script to stick to
[i]Cassandra Wilkinson, “Hard to swallow this bitter pill,” The Australian, July 19
[iii]Louise Hall, “Pan debacle yields further $67.5m payout,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 26 2011
[ix]Alistair H MacLennan and Robert G B Morrison, “Tertiary education institutions should not offer pseudoscientific medical courses,” Medical Journal of Australia 196(4) 5 March 2012 @ http://goo.gl/Xf6VX6 recovered on July 19