Complementary Medicine; Much Loved But Not What The Doctor Ordered  

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:


We’ve got to make sure that your income is sufficient to maintain your businesses. If we lose pharmacists, we lose the PBS. That’s why it’s very important that we keep faith with the Guild and ensure that the pharmacists of Australia can continue to do the marvellous work that they do. But you know pharmacy in the end is not just a business. The reason why pharmacists are so widely respected is because it’s not just another business, like the coffee shop or the fruit grower; pharmacists are health professionals and as far as the government is concerned, as far as the Guild is concerned, it’s very important that we are always adding to the professionalism of pharmacists, that we are always trying to help pharmacists to be able to better deploy their professional expertise for the benefit of the health care of the Australian people.[xi]


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

[ii]Nick Grimm, “Pan Pharmaceuticals boss calls for inquiry into TGA,” ABC Radio, AM August 25 2003 @

[iii]Louise Hall, “Pan debacle yields further $67.5m payout,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 26 2011

[iv]Australian National Audit Office, “Therapeutic Goods Regulation: complementary medicine,” 2014 @ recovered on July 19

[v]National Health and Medical Research Council, “Complementary medicines,” April 9 @ recovered on July 19

[vi]Stephen Matchett, “Start taking the tablets,” Campus Morning Mail, February 6 @ recovered on July 19

[vii]John Dwyer, “Complementary medicine storm,” Medical Journal of Australia: insight February 17 @ recovered on July 19

[viii]National Institute of Complementary Medicine, “Understanding complementary medicine,” nd @ recovered on July 19

[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 @ recovered on July 19  

[x] Stephen Matchett, “No known side effects,” Campus Morning Mail, May 29 @ recovered on July 19

[xi]Tony Abbott, “Speech notes for Pharmacy Guild National Conference,” March 2 2007 (quoted in) Matchett, Stone the crows: 65, March 14 2011 @ recovered on July 19. Strange to relate the original link to the speech now connects to the Liberal Party homepage.