What you should know about complementary medicine

Disgraced wellness blogger Belle Gibson has recently been found guilty in the Federal Court of false and misleading conduct in relation to her health and wellness empire and unlawful fundraising appeals, following false claims that she beat terminal brain cancer by eschewing conventional medicine.

Whether it’s following the advice of someone with a high profile like Belle, or adopting a sugar-free diet, homeopathic remedies, herbal concoctions or practising yoga and meditation, it seems like complementary medicine now claims to offer an answer to everything from depression to cancer. With many of us now seeking out a more holistic approach to our health, how can you make sure you can trust your treater of choice and protect yourself from dodgy practitioners if something goes wrong?

What you should know

  1. Complementary medicine does not have to work to be allowed on the market

Unlike conventional medicines that have to meet strict requirements under the Therapeutic Goods Administration, complementary medicine can still be sold in Australia despite potentially being unproven or tested. Although all complementary medicines are assessed by the Office of Complementary Medicines for safety, they are not assessed for efficacy. You may be wasting your money, or worse, turning down proven treatments in exchange for ‘snake oil’ or other useless remedies.

  1. There are limited legal avenues if something goes wrong

In most states, if a person suffers an injury as a result of unreasonable treatment by a doctor, they may be entitled to bring a claim for compensation. However, this avenue may not be available in many cases involving complementary medicine.

For example, if you followed the recommendations of a wellness blogger or celebrity chef and suffered an injury, it may be difficult to prove that they owed you a duty of care in the same way that a doctor would.  Or if you were receiving treatment from an unregistered practitioner and suffered an injury, the practitioner may not have adequate insurance.  

In some cases, a person might be able to make a complaint to the relevant health complaints ombudsman for the matter to be investigated.

Our Tips:

All of this is not to say that there is no place for complementary medicine, that it does not work or that you should avoid alternative therapies altogether. We should do so responsibly and safely. Our tips to ensure your safety include:

  1. Do your research

The success story of one patient is not proof a treatment works. Look for evidence behind any ‘miracle claims’ and make fully informed decisions about your treatment. Ask lots of questions and consider seeking a second opinion.

  1. Don’t self-diagnose or self-medicate

We’re all guilty of asking Dr Google for an answer sometimes, but it goes without saying that you should be careful about ‘self-diagnosing’ and choosing your treatment this way.

Something that provided relief for someone on social media may not work so well for you. And just because they are publicly recommending something that worked for them is no guarantee they are telling the truth.

  1. Discuss any complementary therapies with  your primary medical practitioner

Doctors are often open to patients incorporating complementary medicine as part of their healthcare, but they need to know what you are doing to avoid potential issues, such as problems with drug interactions. Always tell your doctor if you are undergoing or planning to receive complementary therapy so you can discuss the pros and cons together.

If something goes wrong:

  • Seek legal advice as soon as possible if something goes wrong because in certain circumstances, you may be entitled to compensation.
  • Notify health authorities in your state who might be able to warn other consumers of any dangers or investigate them. Victoria’s new Health Complaints Commissioner, for instance, now has the power to investigate complaints about non-registered health practitioners including alternative therapists.
  • Inform consumer groups about any unrealistic promises being made so they can take legal action and raise public awareness. This is what Consumer Affairs Victoria has done in the case of disgraced health blogger Belle Gibson by pursuing her through the Federal Court for ‘unconscionable conduct’, which carries a maximum penalty of a $1 million fine.
Complimentary medicines

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Amy Johnstone

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
Amy Johnstone is an Associate in Maurice Blackburn’s medical negligence department in Melbourne. Amy graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Social Work in 2004, and went on to attain her Masters of Social Science (Policy and Human Services) in 2007, before completing her Juris ...

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