Is There a Place for Alternative Medicine in a Modern Australia?

Words by: Eliza Smith

When a colourful rock and mineral display catches my eye as I stroll through the markets I am powerless to resist. It’s not just the minerals I am interested in, but the labels attached to them; messy hand written sprawl boldly claiming everything from the ability to calm your nerves to promises of heightened intellectual abilities. A firm believer that crystals don’t possess magical powers I often get a pleasant giggle from reading the nonsense attributed to my favourite minerals. But I didn’t today.

There in front of me sits a metallic, silver-grey mineral named galena. Its mineral formula is omitted but its description has me standing there awkwardly with my mouth open. Galena apparently has cancer-healing properties. I don’t need to see the chemical formula. I know it by heart. PbS: lead sulfide. A source of lead, a toxic element, is being sprouted as a cancer treatment, a new low in the realms of alternative medicine.

Crystal healing is pseudoscientific alternative medicine that doesn’t hold up to any serious scientific scrutiny. At a 2001 British Psychological Society Centenary Annual Conference psychologist Christopher French of Goldsmiths College, University of London, discussed his study that revealed crystals perform no better than a placebo. The reported positive side effects caused by crystal use, including warmth and increased concentration, occurred similarly for people given a real crystal and those given a fake, a finding that drastically undermines the claims that crystals have power. Additionally, self reported believers of crystal healing were twice as likely to report positive side effects than sceptics, suggesting cognitive bias also plays a significant role. In conclusion crystals don’t have magical powers, and most scientists would agree that the results are hardly surprising.

Crystal healing is one of the less mainstream alternative therapies practiced in Australia but other forms of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), such as acupuncture, reflexology, naturopathy and homeopathy are increasingly being accepted by the public. It doesn’t matter if you want to burn fat, reduce anxiety, boost energy or prevent cancer there is some form of alternative medicine or therapy that promises you success, and Australians are falling for it.

As a matter of fact, despite our advances in medical science, the use of therapies that fall outside of conventional medicine within Australia is actually on the rise. There are over 1000 naturopaths and over 700 homeopaths clinics in Perth alone, including some who specialise in pets. According to the National Health and Medical Research Council more than two thirds of Australians use complementary medicine and nationally the annual expenditure on these treatments is approximately $4 billion. Complementary and alternative therapies are becoming big business but considering these treatments have no firm scientific basis, is it really a cost-effective solution?

According to the Australian Medical Association there is limited efficacy evidence regarding most complementary and alternative medicines in Australia. Clinical trials are often limited and of poor quality with contradictory results, and very few show effectiveness greater than placebo, the gold standard in determining if a medical treatment works. The official role of regulating CAM products belongs to The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) under the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989. Unfortunately, many CAM products (for example nutritional supplements and homeopathic treatments) are considered lower risk products and are categorised as ‘listed’, meaning they are not tested by the TGA for efficacy before entering the market.

Furthermore there is evidence to suggest that complementary medicines are not only ineffective but can, under certain circumstances, actually be harmful. Herbal remedies in particular can interfere with chemotherapy drugs by either rendering them less effective or by increasing their toxicity. This is particularly worrying when you consider a 2008 national consumer survey that found only half of people mentioned their complementary therapies to their doctors.

Of greater concern however, is when sick or vulnerable people turn to these alternative therapies to cure their diseases while delaying or neglecting conventional medical advice. In few diseases is this topic as emotive and critical as it is for cancer. A 2010 study suggests that over 65% of cancer patients in Australia used at least one CAM approach. Regardless, the Cancer Council of Australia specifically states that alternative therapies do not aim to cure a person’s cancer and warns against choosing alternative therapy at the exclusion of cancer therapy.

Unfortunately for ten-year-old Perth girl Tamar Stitt, her parents didn’t follow this advice, and she died in 2009 after they denied her conventional medical treatments and opted for alternative therapy alone. The question of whether or not the child would have survived had she have undergone surgery and chemotherapy, and if her parents are morally responsible for her death, is an emotionally charged and complex one. There was unquestionably a lot of grief involved for the parents who ultimately only wanted the best for their child. Given the dire consequences in cases like this, what leads people to reject evidence based medicine in favour of alternative medicine?

Natural is the golden buzzword of our generation, and the perception that complementary and alternative therapies are more “natural” and therefore safer than conventional medicine is a common reason for relying on them. This misconception likely stems from a lack of knowledge on how medicine is discovered and tested. Medicine is testable by clinical trials. If a “natural” remedy is tested and found to be effective then it’s not called alternative medicine, it’s called medicine. Numerous chemicals that we currently think of as drugs were originally discovered within natural plants and have been proven effective in clinical trials. Morphine, a very effective pain medication, was isolated from the poppy flower. Quinine, an anti-malarial and anti-inflammatory was found in the bark of cinchona trees that was once used by 17th century Romans. Ultimately, if a herbal remedy is labelled alternative medicine it’s because it hasn’t been shown to be effective. It’s as simple as that.

Another reason people turn to alternative therapies is that they provide patients with hope and a sense of control. The idea that you could avoid having surgery or chemotherapy and instead utilise natural therapies, crystals or acupuncture is a tempting one. It’s an understandable feeling; the mere thought of having a serious or terminal illness stirs up uncomfortable emotions in us all. But like the old saying goes “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”.

A great example of this is the case of Belle Gibson, the Australian wellness blogger who was disgraced earlier this year. Belle Gibson, the author of the book and app The Whole Pantry, claimed she’d fought off terminal brain cancer using the simplest form of alternative therapy there is: changing your diet and lifestyle. Unfortunately for her the façade came crashing down when she forced to confess that she never actually had brain cancer. Her actions were widely condemned for placing cancer sufferers in danger by giving them the hope that basic lifestyle changes could cure them of unrelated terminal illnesses and for popularising the cruel assumption that people suffering terminal illness are partially responsible for its outcome. Belle Gibson made false claims and was butchered by the media for it, yet the whole alternative medicine industry is built on false claims and it often escapes attention.

If somebody had purchased that galena and held it, perhaps rubbed it out of desperation collecting the grey dust on their hands, and then accidently ingested it, they would be adding another health hazard to their list. Misinformation like the completely unfounded and ridiculous claim that galena could influence cancer is ubiquitous within our modern world and the Internet. Sound scientific information is difficult to find and is frequently misinterpreted making it difficult for the average person to make educated decisions regarding their health. Seemingly harmless alternative therapies are not only a waste of money, but have been proven dangerous in the past, or even deadly if they are relied upon while neglecting real medicine.

This unchecked and untested alternative medicine has no place in our modern world. Its ability to promote unproven health claims in clinics that masquerade as scientific establishments and in the isles of our supermarkets creates a market that takes advantage of vulnerable people, just like the one Belle Gibson cashed in on. Of course there are future medical discoveries to be made using natural substances, but realistically most of the products labelled alternative medicine are labelled as such because there’s insufficient evidence that they work. There are really only two types of medicine in Australia, medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t, and there’s only room for one.