OUR health care system is a bit like our system of government: it’s not perfect, but it’s way ahead of the alternatives.
It’s not uncommon for conventional health care providers to be accused of being under the influence of Big Pharma, of continuing to provide ineffective treatments and, sometimes, of causing harm. We hear accusations of doctors just handing out prescriptions, prioritising treatment over prevention, and not providing holistic care. We can be portrayed as arrogant and paternalistic.
What, then, of the alternatives?
Providers and purveyors of so-called natural therapies often try to take the higher moral ground. Are these remedies actually natural? Are their purveyors treating their clients with honesty and respect? Do they treat the whole patient?
It’s important to understand the role of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, and the difference between registered and listed substances. In contrast to registered medicines – like most pharmaceuticals – listed medicines are considered to be of less risk to the public, and are not evaluated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for efficacy or safety.
Another important difference between so-called natural therapies and pharmaceuticals is the widespread advertising of supplements and other remedies, often making claims that cannot be substantiated and using popular celebrities to represent the brand. A recent complaint has been lodged by Public Health academic and consumer advocate Professor Ken Harvey about unsupported claims from supplement manufacturers – spruiked by celebrities.
Then, there are claims made by alternative therapies providers. While criticising the medical profession for not being open about informing patients, they often provide simplistic, directed advice and, frequently, directly market the products that they recommend.
Finally, there are no forms of health care more holistic than conventional medicine. We provide preventive and therapeutic care, from smoking cessation to major surgery, from birth to death, for patients of all walks of life, all ages and for all conditions. We can assist people with both acute and chronic conditions, and work in collaborative teams with our nursing colleagues as well as physiotherapists, dietitians, podiatrists, and speech and occupational therapists. Sometimes modern medicine delivers such miracles that it is seen as particularly tragic when the miracle fails. We are human, after all, and can’t deliver perfection.
We must continue to be a self-reflective profession, always looking to improve services for patients, and always prepared to question current practice and habit. We must be open to new information, and better ways of understanding what our patients need. We must be good custodians of public funds and of the trust placed in us, and do our best to avoid conflicts of interest. At the same time, we must hold all health care providers to the same standards, being prepared to call out deceptive and conflicted behaviour where it occurs.
“Big Vita” is neither natural nor pure.
Dr Sue Ieraci is a specialist emergency physician with 30 years’ experience in the public hospital system. Her particular interests include policy development and health system design, and she has held roles in medical regulation and management. She is an executive member of Friends of Science in Medicine.
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