Is alternative medicine a waste of time?


Alternative medicine is bollocks.

That’s the view of the Friends of Science in Medicine, professors and scientists, who say offering university courses in fields like homeopathy, iridology, reflexology, kinesiology, healing touch therapy, aromatherapy and energy medicine is a baseless waste of time and insult to science.


The Medical Journal of Australia recently featured a stinging editorial on this subject, authored by members of the FSM:

“Pseudoscientific courses sully the genuinely scientific courses and research conducted at the same institution,” said professors Alastair MacLennan and Robert Morrison, who co-wrote the editorial.

“Subjects such as acupuncture and chiropractic are claimed to treat a broad array of afflictions and are taught as such. The levels of evidence supporting these alternative beliefs are weak at best, and such randomised controlled trials of these therapies as exist mostly do not support their efficacy (with the exception of acupuncture for some types of pain).

“Some self-regulated chiropractors’ associations have a more extreme vision that chiropractic should become the major primary-care discipline.

Alarmingly, some chiropractors now extend their manipulation of the spine to children, making claims that this can cure asthma, allergies, bedwetting, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, colic, fever and numerous other problems, and serve as a substitute for vaccination.

“We respect those who distance themselves from such unproven beliefs.

“Their [university] scientists and students should be concerned by any retreat from the primacy of an experimental, evidence-based approach in science and medicine. Academics at these institutions need to stand up for science. Anatomists cannot be asked to support the validity of the meridian channels of acupuncture, pharmacologists cannot advocate, without evidence of efficacy, the use of herbal and homeopathic medicines to naturopaths, and physiologists cannot be asked to explain mythical subluxation theory to chiropractic students.

Federal funding is wasted in supporting pseudoscience through expenditure on campuses that offer such courses, if they directly or indirectly encourage the use of unproven therapies, and through subsidies for rebates that private insurers provide for these treatments.”


Those at the extreme other end of the spectrum believe alternative medicines are a better way of dealing with a range of diseases and conditions. Can you cure cancer with root vegetables and yoga? Some believe you can. These extreme types shun stethoscope-medicine entirely in the midst of herbal remedies and diet cleanses.

But part of the heavy criticism of alternative methods is they lead groups of people like these to believe they don’t need regular medicine at all and can cure cancer with a diet change, or vaccinate using homeopathic dilutions. The Google Doctor brigade who think they’ve discovered something better than GP clinics and emergency wards and cancer treatment centres. Aren’t we encouraging them?

But believe it or not, there’s a middle-ground too.

Prof. Kerryn Phelps


Professor Kerryn Phelps AM is no quack. Former head of the Australian Medical Association and current President of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association, she argues the best approach has always been one of a joint-strike between the marvels of modern medicine and the mystique of traditional methods.

Doctors and medical treatments are fantastic for acute and emergency interventions,” she says. “If your appendix bursts I don’t know anyone who is going to get a homeopathic course of treatment to wait it out and try and fix it, you just get a doctor to whip it out. But for chronic pain and long term diseases with long term affects, you’d be surprised how effective alternative methods can be at treating these,” she says.


“Part of the problem is the title. Complementary medicine is just that. It’s complementary. It’s not ‘instead of’ it shouldn’t be only alternative. Many doctors are mixing and matching because they can see the results for themselves. Integrative medicine – where we use a combination – is the dominant paradigm in Germany and most of Europe. We are very much behind the 8-ball in Australia.”

Prof. Phelps rattles off a list of the world’s most prestigious universities including Harvard, Yale and Stanford who teach integrative medicine. She wrote the first textbook on integrative health (General Practice) and that, together with another book, contains some 5000 references to scientific studies, she says.

“I’ve always taken a more holistic approach to medicine but I will point out that I don’t say one or the other philosophical approach to medicine is all good or all bad. I use clinical judgment that will do the least harm.”

And that includes, she says, having trained doctors and medical personnel who know their way around complementary medicine, even if it means spending time learning about it from an ‘evidence-based approach’ at university.

For her part, Prof. Phelps says she shares many of the basic concerns for research and evidence in the field that the Friends of Science in Medicine do, but says they’re making more enemies than friends in medicine.

What should unite us all is the desire to do what is safest and most effective for our patients, which includes respecting their choices and preferences for safe and effective complementary therapies,” she says.

What’s your view on alternative medicine? Do you use it? Believe it works? Where do you draw the line? Should it be taught in universities?