Australian Doctors, Scientists Wage War on Alternative Medicine

The 450 members of Friends of Science in Medicine are fighting to remove what they are calling pseudosciences from university classes.

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In 1997 Kevin Sorbo, known for his starring role in the television series Hercules, felt a searing pain in his left shoulder during a workout. Thinking it was a strain, he went to see his chiropractor, who manipulated his neck for treatment. Several days later the actor suffered a stroke and a recent article in Neurology Now links the aneurysm with the actions of his chiropractor. The article is currently used as reference material by a prominent group of Australian doctors, medical researchers, and scientists who are trying to curb what they refer to as pseudosciences, like branches of chiropractic practice, right at their root: the universities where they are taught.

Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM) already has 450 members. They include Ian Frazer, the inventor of the cervical cancer vaccine, and Sir Gustav Nossal, a renowned immunologist. Among their group, 50 are international and they too hope to snuff out what they refer to as modern-day quackery. The group has written a letter to all of Australia's university vice-chancellors asking them to: "Reverse the trend which sees government-funded tertiary institutions offering courses in the health care sciences that are not underpinned by convincing scientific evidence."

The questionable courses include homeopathy, iridology, reflexology, Chinese herbal medicine, chiropractic, naturopathy, and aromatherapy, some of which are taught at 18 of 39 Australian universities. "A university is supposed to be a bastion of good science, but their reputation is let down by teaching something like homeopathy," said John Dwyer, a founding member of FSM and emeritus professor of medicine at the University of New South Wales.

But in Australia, just like in the United States, alternative medicine is a billion-dollar industry. Even though the country has a decent health care system -- a publication from the Commonwealth Fund looked at seven countries and Australia's health care system was ranked third, while the U.S. was ranked last -- the interest in natural health seems to be booming. According to data from the National Herbalists Association of Australia (NHAA), 70 percent of Australians use complementary medicine.

The movement carries momentum of a similar campaign in the U.K., where it is no longer possible to receive degrees in alternative medicine from publicly funded universities.

Medicare, Australia's government health care agency, doesn't provide rebates for alternative treatments, except for chiropractic and osteopath treatment in specific circumstances. But most of the country's private insurers, who are FSM's next target, do. "People are voting with their wallets. Why would they pay for the treatments if they aren't effective?" said Stephen Eddey, the director of nutritional medicine at the Australian Traditional Medicine Society.

Rob Morrison, another founding member of FSM who is a professorial fellow at the School of Education at Flinders University in South Australia, has written off the effectiveness of some alternative health treatments as placebo-based and regression toward the mean, where patients who would have recovered without any treatment attribute their recovery to alternative medicine. And he believes that patients are drawn to these practices because orthodox medicine comes with its own problems. "Sometimes someone will go to a general practitioner and they will be out of there within 10 minutes," he said. "But if someone goes to an alternative care practitioner there is this feeling that they are being listened to. Their naturopath might sit with them for an hour and it probably feels more thorough."

FSM stresses that they are not leveling their criticism at all things considered to be alternative or natural medicine. Morrison supports the idea that there are vitamins, like vitamin D, and other natural therapies that have long been demonstrated to be effective. "We don't consider them alternative therapies because they have been proven to work," he said. "What we are worried about are things like homeopathy, iridology, or reflexology, or practitioners who talk about a mystical energy."

Presented by

Marina Kamenev is a journalist based in Sydney.

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