Complementary medicine crackdown has doctors fearing natural therapies ban
Doctors fear they will be banned from recommending vitamins, nutritional supplements and natural therapies under tighter regulations being put forward by the Medical Board of Australia (MBA).
The board, which oversees the regulation of all doctors, is considering options for clearer rules around complementary and unconventional medicine, as well as emerging treatments.
It said there was a need for “additional safeguards to protect patients”, stating while some treatments may be beneficial, others may be unnecessary or expose patients to serious side effects.
The proposal has outraged many doctors, mostly general practitioners, who practise integrative medicine — a combination of conventional and complementary medicines.
According to the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association, there was no evidence the current code of conduct was inadequate or that the proposed guidelines would improve patient safety.
The association claimed only 1 per cent of all adverse drug reactions reported between 2014–16 were caused by complementary medicines.
Increase in suspensions of doctors
But MBA chairwoman Anne Tonkin said she did not believe the current guidelines were sufficient.
“State and territory boards, who actually receive the various notifications of concern, have been telling us there are a number of cases where harm has been done to members of the public from the practise of complementary and alternative and all those other emerging therapies,” Dr Tonkin said.
There has also been an increase in the number of doctors suspended or found guilty of unprofessional conduct for practises ranging from alternative cancer treatments, hormone and steroid prescription to the treatment of Lyme-like illness and stem cell therapy.
Lyme Disease, caused by tick bites, is accepted overseas, but the Federal Health Department does not believe Australian ticks spread the infection.
And while stem cell therapy is a proven treatment for a small number of diseases, it is also offered by private clinics for a wide range of other conditions and costs up to $60,000.
More than two thirds of Australian consumers report using complementary medicines, spending up to $3.5 billion annually.
Doctors blindsided by MBA proposal: GP
Nadine Perlen, a board member of the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine, said doctors were blindsided by the proposal.
“Potentially a doctor like myself, who is a qualified GP working in general practice, who integrates knowledge of nutrition and biochemistry and gastrointestinal health, could be told … you are not allowed to recommend vitamins or minerals to your patients,” Dr Perlen said.
Doctors were also alarmed the new guidelines amalgamated complementary medicine with unconventional and emerging treatments.
“They have lumped doctors like myself, who are doing that kind of practise in general practice, with doctors who are doing more fringe practises,” Dr Perlen said.
”They cite in their paper things like chelation therapy, homeopathy, stem cell therapy. That is not what most of us do.”
Finding a solution when conventional medicine fails
Joanne Rusling is a former medical researcher who sought help from a GP who practises integrative medicine after suffering major depression.
Despite four years trialling different medications, her symptoms had not improved.
“I was basically told, ‘this is how you are now’,” Mrs Rusling said.
“‘This is your lot in life,’ and if I wasn’t already depressed and feeling really down, that was pretty difficult.”
She said the GP took a more wholistic approach and enabled her to move ahead.
“[This was] someone who understands conventional medicine and can apply it and plug it into complementary therapy,” Mrs Rusling said.
“Plus diet and food and … gut health and working on the microbiome, and detoxifying all at the same time so that you don’t feel like you are losing your mind.”
But Dr Tonkin argued the proposed guidelines would not reduce patient choice.
“We are not trying to shut anyone down,” she said.
“We are not trying to restrict what people do as long as they provide all the information to members of the public.
“It is really important [for] patients going to see registered medical practitioners to be able to have the confidence the practitioner will consider the whole range of possible treatments, both conventional and possibly unconventional, when looking at how best to treat that patient.”
‘It is a very real fear’: GP
Despite those assurances, Dr Perlen said the proposal did not clearly outline the practical implications of new guidelines.
“It is a very real fear,” Dr Perlen said.
“This has happened in other countries around the world … where doctors are not allowed to practise any kind of integrative medicine.”
She believed the proposed guidelines had the potential to increase patient risk.
“Patients will not come to us, they will go to other natural therapists or they will treat themselves,” Dr Perlen said.
The proposal for clearer regulation has also been attacked online, with claims the MBA was “attempting to impose severe censorship of integrative and complementary medicine in Australia”.
Patients have been encouraged to make a submission to the MBA, as have GPs.
The public consultation period for the proposed changes was due to end next week, however it has been extended twice due to the large number of submissions.
The deadline for public comment now ends on June 30.