Complementary medicine and academia

Victoria Zerbst on how universities in Australia teach and research complementary and alternative medicines

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Art: Michael Lotsarias

Teaching complementary medicine at universities is a controversial subject. By definition, complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are practices that have not been confirmed to work by scientific method. There are also wide-ranging practices that fit under the CAM umbrella, including naturopathy, reflexology, chiropractic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and Christian faith healing, each with different levels of empirical rigour.

With academics sparring back and fourth on forums like The Conversation either defending or attacking approaches to alternative medicine in academia, it is hard to ignore the growth of complementary medicine research in Australia over the past 15 years.

In many cases, universities are approached by pharmaceutical companies offering funding in exchange for bit of credibility.

In 2015, it was announced that vitamin manufacturer Swisse would be injecting $15 million over six years to fund a new Complementary Medicines Evaluation Centre at La Trobe University. It was also reported the deal was offered to and rejected by several universities before finally being taken up by La Trobe. The deal resulted in Dr Ken Harvey’s resignation as the Adjunct Associate Professor at the University’s School of Public Health because of his concerns about the conflict of interest.

In May the same year it was announced that the Blackmore’s Institute would fund the establishment of the Maurice Blackmore Chair in Integrative Medicine at the University of Sydney. The Blackmores Institute is the “academic and professional arm” of Blackmores Limited, the company that makes those sweet vitamins your mum tells you to buy when you say you feel tired. Now they are dishing out $1.3 million over the next five years to fund USyd research into the impact of complementary medicine in health practices.

No research is underway as yet, as the University has told Honi Soit. “The process to recruit, select and appoint a person to the Maurice Blackmore Chair of Integrative Medicine is in progress,” a spokesperson said.

Even if academics disagree with the practice of complementary and alternative medicine, its presence has become overwhelming in the Australian consumer market. According to the National Institute of Complementary Medicine, Australians spend more than $3.5 billion on complementary and alternative medicine every year. With this expected to grow to $4.6 billion in 2017, mainstream practitioners can no longer neglect teaching students how these medicines work.

Last year the Dean of the Sydney Medical School, Bruce Robinson, told the ABC that doctors could no longer dismiss complementary medicines, suggesting it’s important that “graduates leave with a basic understanding of what these alternative preparations might do and how they might interact with the other medicines they prescribe.”

Industry is not the only tour-de-force behind complementary medicine practices in academia. An interesting case study is the growth of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which has often been supported and funded by the government. The cross-cultural study of Eastern medicine has been marketed as a way to strengthen our relationship with China, with the market for Chinese medicine in Australia growing at a rapid rate and the Chinese demand for Australian pharmaceutical products increasing as well.

In November 2007, a Sydney University press release announced the University would be taking

a leading role in researching traditional Chinese medicines with the establishment of a research centre and a joint chair position.

The Australia-China Centre for Research in Chinese Medicines was to facilitate an academic exchange between University of Sydney and Sun Yatsen University in Guangzhou, China. Professor Kelvin Chan was appointed the position of Joint Chair in Traditional Chinese Medicine at USyd and UWS, and the position was funded by the NSW Office of Science and Medical Research.

This gave birth to the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), which also received $4 million in funding from the Australian government and $600,000 from the NSW government in 2007. Funding like this is often a one-off initiative.

This wasn’t the first time TCM was introduced to the University. From 2002 to 2011 Dr George Li ran a Masters in Herbal Medicine degree program. He told Honi Soit the program was put forward because the demand for Australian practitioners in TCM was growing. “It was quite smooth getting approval from the university, Chancellor Dame Leonie and Vice-chancellor Gavin Brown were very kind and supportive in Academic Board,” he said.

The proposal for the course outlined that there were frequent enquiries about the program from overseas. “The course on modern herbal medicine is attractive to the Chinese market, as herbal medicine plays an important role in healthcare and commerce in China.” A huge selling point of the degree was the increased ratio of overseas students. Twenty per cent of students in the course were from overseas, compared to USyd’s overall overseas enrolment of 12.8 per cent.

Once the program was approved, it received donations from pharmaceutical companies and members of the Chinese community. There was even a banquet fundraiser in Chinatown for 600 people. Li also received a response from Prince Charles saying he was happy to hear about the Master of Herbal Medicines program.

However, nine years later the degree was shut down. “The University was focused on efficiency and unfortunately we decided to close the

program,” Li told Honi. “There was a debate on how much science was involved, but all masters programs focused on evidence-based approaches, which is different to traditional theory.”

In stark contrast to the 2007 press release, announcing USyd would be taking a leading role in researching traditional Chinese medicines, the University of Sydney is now taking a backseat.

In 2012, a research centre for Chinese medicine popped up as a joint venture between the University of Adelaide, the Shanxi College of Traditional Medicine and the Zhendong Pharmaceutical Company.

In 2013 the Australia-China Centre for Research in Chinese Medicines moved to RMIT, jointly funded by the university, the Guangdong Provincial Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences and the Guangdong Provincial Hospital of Chinese Medicine.

The National Institute of Complementary Medicine is now housed at UWS and is funded by the “university, industry partners, philanthropy, and research grants and contracts”. These sponsors include pharmaceutical corporations Soho Flordis International, a global natural medicine company, Catalent, who boast “70 billion doses produced in 2013” on their website, and Blackmores. The centre also receives funding from the Jacka Foundation of Natural Therapies, who also fund the Australian Research Centre in Complementary and Integrative Medicine at UTS.

Dr Li told Honi that pharmacy students are still taught a bit about complementary medicine at an undergraduate level. “There are lots of products in the pharmacy and students have to understand.”

It seems, in regards to complementary medicine and academia, the amount of corporate sponsorship could give the perception of conflicted interest. Companies fund research so they can reverse engineer scientific evidence for alternative medicines and buy themselves some credibility. This is often why so many universities can offer degrees and programs in CAM. The alternative medicine industry seems to be fuelling itself and using universities as a means to their ends.

The University has no current plan to expand teaching of TCM but the Blackmores research will kick off soon.