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A body of proof for complementary medicine

A body of proof for complementary medicine

Related tags Medicine

Traditional and complementary medicines are widely used around the world and despite being frequently criticised for making unjustified clinical claims remain, the field remains one of the fastest growing areas of healthcare. 

Many Australian companies are experiencing unprecedented growth, supported largely by expanding markets in Asia. 

Prof. Alan Bensoussan is one of Australia's most prominent complementary medicine researchers with a focus on Chinese medicine research and clinical practice spanning 25 years. He has received ministerial appointments to state and national committees and has frequently consulted to national and international agencies.

In Australia, two out of three people use some form of complementary medicine with annual expenditure over A$3.9bn (US$2.8bn) and growing. Yet this high use often occurs without a full understanding of the effectiveness of complementary medicine treatments. 

The Australian government—which spends over A$9bn per annum on pharmaceuticals—and industry has an ethical requirement to conduct independent research into the potential benefits and limitations of complementary medicine to improve public health and safety.

These high usage rates have also led to 90% of medical practitioners expressing an interest in increasing their understanding of complementary medicine. There is growing evidence that complementary medicine can make a significant, cost-effective contribution to chronic non-communicable diseases. However, there is a need to strengthen this evidence to identify and better utilise validated interventions. 

At the National Institute of Complementary Medicine, we seek to proactively respond to the increased interest in complementary medicines through high-quality research and evidence-based advice. 

As one of the largest complementary medicine research facilities in the western world, the institute strengthens Australia’s leadership and competitiveness in complementary medicine research by building capacity and in developing highly skilled, world-class researchers in the sector. 

In order to build such capacity and expertise, and increase the evidence base around the safety, quality and efficacy of complementary medicines, a long-term perspective is required. 

However, in Australia, the success rate of receiving funding grants from the country’s primary funding scheme for health and medical research, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), is only 14%, and in complementary medicine research, the success rate is much lower. 

Less than 1% of NHMRC funds have been allocated to complementary medicine research over the last decade. In this context it’s easy to see the importance of engaging industry and philanthropic organisations to support and increase the health and medical research effort in Australia. 

Collaborations in this way—with most medical research institutes accounting for 30% or more of their funding from private sources—are vital, especially in such an unstable research funding environment. 

There is a long history of engagement between philanthropic organisations, industry and universities in medical discovery and knowledge building. Partnerships between private organisations and universities are a longstanding and necessary part of research, as Australian taxpayers are not able and should not be required to fund all research.

A healthy dose of scepticism is a good thing, and an important part of science. It is reasonable—in fact, it is responsible—to bear in mind the possible motivations of private funding. However, the dogmatic criticism of private research funding is unnecessary and hardly conducive to rational discussion, and inhibits the spirit of inquiry and growth of industry. 

As long as research is rigorous and oversights are in place through ethics committees and university policies, these partnerships are essential for research. Support from private funding that is well managed, ethical, and unencumbered boosts our national capability to deliver better health and wellbeing through research and ensures Australia continues to produce some of the world’s best scientific and medical researchers. 

The National Institute of Complementary Medicine has played a major role in developing policies for the practice, teaching and research of complementary medicine, in demonstrating the value and relevance of complementary medicine based on research and evidence, and in helping to frame the terms of public debates. 

There is a growing body of evidence supporting the benefits of many complementary medicines and therapies. We will continue to facilitate a strong, strategic approach to the development of the complementary medicine sector in Australia, and endorse Australia’s role as an international leader in achieving an informed, evidence-based approach to complementary medicine use. 

We must continue to do rigorous scientific studies, funded by both government and Industry, in recognition of the high levels of complementary medicine use, the need for better informed guidance, and the opportunity to further impact the growing chronic disease burden. 

By building on the wealth of traditional and indigenous medical knowledge, scientific research allows us to create new knowledge and options for enhancing health and wellbeing. This evolution of medicine—the integration of conventional and complementary medicine—needs to be evidence informed, not evidence ignorant. 

We are on the threshold of a new era in complementary medicine research, one that recognises the uniqueness of the patient and their needs, supporting a practice that to an extent is eclectic, but one that also draws down on strong scientific methodology to test, validate and utilise or discard key interventions.

About the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM)

The Western Sydney University’s National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM)​ is Australia’s leader in research and policy in the field. Seed funded by the national and state governments, NICM plays a key national role in ensuring Australians have access to reliable evidence on complementary medicines and treatments in wide use. NICM is globally recognised for its world-class research and innovations in complementary medicine.

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