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Budget good news: no taxpayer dollars for a ‘bunch of hooey’

Treasurer Wayne Swan delivering the Budget on Tuesday. AAP

It’s good news indeed that the Federal Budget is providing the chief medical officer with a million dollars to review what works and what doesn’t in the world of “natural” medicine. Professor Chris Baggoley will have one year to report his conclusions.

At the end of that time, says Health Minister Tanya Plibersek, “The Private Health Insurance Rebate will be paid for insurance products that cover natural therapy services only where the Chief Medical Officer finds there is clear evidence they are clinically effective.”

Truth be told, this could be the easiest million dollars the CMO will ever earn for the government. He could have a report ready next month, as there are very few “natural” therapies that have any chance of meeting a requirement of evidence. The government predicts it will save $30 million a year after the review.

So what therapies does the government have in mind? This recent article tells readers that the government is referring to modalities such as “homeopathy, Reiki, aromatherapy, iridology, ear candling, crystal therapy, flower essences, kinesiology and Rolfing.”

Never heard of Rolfing? Well, according to Wikipedia it’s “ a therapy created by The Rolf Institute of Structural Integration (also referred to as ‘RISI’) whereby the alleged manipulation of the fasciae by specific methods is believed to yield therapeutic benefit! Rolfing lacks a solid scientific evidence base.”

Ear candling may no longer be coverd by a private health insurance rebate. Bjørn Bulthuis

As the founder of the Skeptics, Michael Shermer, noted, Rolfing represents “a bunch of hooey”. Those looking for quality evidence on for natural medicines will find the Cochrane Library invaluable.

The article suggests chiropractic and acupuncture will continue to be funded, as they are “mainstream” practices. But these modalities are used in ways for which there is certainly no clear evidence of clinical effectiveness.

While there’s weak evidence for conservative chiropractic being effective for helping patients with minor musculoskeletal problems, there’s none to support the more extreme use of chiropractic spinal “adjustments” to treat a wide range of diseases in adults and children.

Using acupuncture to control pain for a very limited number of musculoskeletal problems has been established in clinical trials. But despite many studies, there are no data suggesting it can treat any disease process and the breadth of conditions it’s used for today will not meet the government’s requirement for support.

The initiative announced with the budget papers may well represent the beginning of a more critical assessment of government-funded health programs, with an emphasis on proven effectiveness. This approach would provide a much larger dividend than the anticipated $30 million dollars to be saved after the proposed review.

Australians are, at last, being told by their government that a large number of diagnostic and therapeutic claims made for many so-called “complementary and alternative medicines” are without merit and often lead to a delay in correct diagnosis and the start of beneficial treatment.

The process of debunking health services and health-related education involving pseudoscience has surged in recent months in multiple guises. A growing number of articles addressing this issue have appeared in the national press and the matter has been prominent in radio interviews. The teaching of pseudosciences in university health courses has also been questioned.

The evidence base for acupuncture will not be reviewed by the chief medical officer. NYCTCM/Flickr

The disadvantages of national registration of traditional medical practices has been debated, as has the therapeutic benefits from homeopathic preparations and other “alternative” therapies.

All this coincides with active campaigning for the primacy of science-based medicine by a group of scientists, clinicians, lawyers and consumer advocates, (of which we are founding members) now numbering more than 700.

It’s no longer tenable to accuse those concerned with the growing influence of “sciences” not supported by credible evidence of effectiveness to be on a “witch hunt”. Irrefutable worldwide research on homeopathy and many other “natural” therapies shows that they have no more effect than a placebo.

The Government’s commitment to science-based medicine raises a number of interesting questions. Will the private health industry wait for the results of the review before it stops paying for ineffective modalities or at least makes coverage for such treatments an optional extra? If it did, customers could have broad coverage without having to pay for modern pseudosciences.

With international agreement that homeopathy and many other natural therapies are no better than placebo, will Australian pharmacists rid their shelves of homeopathic and other useless preparations? And will the few universities that still prepare people for a career based around these nonsensical therapies stop and recommit to teaching good science? Let’s hope so.

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