Blog, pharmacy, the law

The line between complementary and quackery

Complementary Alternative Therapies (CAM) were once laughed at by Western medical groups as scientific fraud.

Today they are accepted as the norm by many members of the health industry, including some Doctors.

However hard scientific evidence about the effectiveness of many of their products is often missing. 

Alternative therapies are BIG business.

Here are some figures on how many people are using complementary therapies in America and Australia, and just how much money they are spending –

How much money are people really spending on complementary therapies?

  • In American 38% of adults and 12% of children are using complementary therapies
  • This amounts to$30.2 billion being spent on out-of-pocket on complementary healthcare in America every year.
  • 68% of Australians have used at least one complementary therapy in the past 12 months
  • Australians are spending 4 billion every year on alternative therapies

“…many people who are neither foolish nor ill-educated still cling fervently to beliefs that fly in the face of well-established research”
– Barry L. Beyerstein

Complementary therapies have developed to be like private hospitals – a parallel universe, where sick people become ‘consumers’, walk in and pay cash to get the treatments they want. The business structure of both complementary therapies and private hospitals is profit making.

There is less government scrutiny of the errors, mistakes and failures in private health systems, than in public health systems.

This lack of transparency removes the ‘level playing field’ that SHOULD exist between mainstream and alternative therapies. Yet in economic terms, both are competing for the same ‘consumers’.

  • Complementary therapies do not have to pass rigorous clinical trials in the same way that pharmaceutical goods or medical devices do, before they can market their products.
  • Alternative health professionals do have associations, but are largely self regulated.
Blog, Dr Ken Harvey
Dr Ken Harvey

Doctors around the world have asked (with justification) why some alternative therapies are being allowed to publicly make a range of completely unsustained claims, while operating a for-profit business.

One Australian Doctor was sued by a complementary therapy company for publicly questioning their accountability

One Australian Doctor has faced litigation and costly legal battles, after querying the scientific validity of a ‘complementary’ weight loss product.

Dr Ken Harvey is Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University.

He is currently involved in a number of Australian health organisations including the Consumers Health Forum Australia and Friends of Science in Medicine. Dr Harvey also runs the website Medreach where topics like poor regulation of alternative therapies is discussed.

People tend to cherry pick. They tend to choose which science they want to believe.
Steven Novella, MD

Both government funded and private health products and services, should face identical levels of scrutiny and accountability.

And I personally question the use of the word ‘consumer’ where referring to sick people. Some of the patients I have nursed have told me they are having ‘the worst day of their lives’. They come into hospital distressed, confused, often in pain and totally dependent on someone with authority and accountability to guide them to the right treatments.

I’m not denying that hospitals need to modernise. They do.

But no one will ever convince me that sick people are anything but vulnerable, distressed and completely incapable of making ‘consumer’ style decisions.

Great packaging doesn’t mean a sound, clinically tested product

If you go into one of the many alternative health shops springing up in well-heeled areas, you will see expensive products that are beautifully packaged.

Bars of scented soap with silk ties. Tiny vials of aromatherapy oils with elegant pictures of roses and herbs on the label. The promise of less anxiety, a better nights sleep and losing those unwanted pounds.

A female audience is overwhelmingly being targeted.

But what you won’t see is in these shops is academic papers published in authoritative journals about the effectiveness of these treatments. After many years of alternative therapies being studied, very few can prove in clinical trials that they are any more effective than… a cold glass of champagne and good sex.

The fact is that profits drives healthcare, whether it is alternative, mainstream, private or public. And patients have very little information about who is making what, or what role they are playing in the business transactions.

Healthcare is one of the wealthiest industries in the western world. It is the largest single employer in many countries.

Public or private, the billion dollar health industry is after one thing. Your money.

Make sure you are getting value, before you part with it.

And health professionals who speak out about quackery, fraud, avoidable errors or over servicing should be protected. Not left to fund their own legal fees.


Social and judgmental biases that make inert treatments seem to work – Barry L. Beyerstein

The Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States – US Department of Health and Human Services

Why the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Should Be Defunded – Wallace I. Sampson, M.D.

Examining Holistic Medicine – Douglas Stalker

The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America – Stephen Barrett

Pharmacists are trusted medical professionals, so they shouldn’t sell remedies that lack evidence – The Conversation

Medreach – Associate Professor Ken Harvey

Food and Drug Administration – USA government

Complementary and Alternative Medicine – Use in Australia: A National Population-Based Study – Anthony Lin Zhang

Complementary medicine use by the Australian population: a critical mixed studies systematic review of utilisation, perceptions and factors associated with use – BMC Complement Altern Med

Complementary and alternative medicine – Representation in popular magazines – Alexandra Dunne, Christine Phillips

The Spare Room – Helen Garner

© Wikihospitals April 2018

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