NHMRC head: “We need to move away from magic”

Professor Warwick Anderson, the recently retired head of the National Health & Medical Research Council, has given a blast to the complementary and alternative medicine industry, saying that 19th century quackery has no place in the 21st century.

“We must assume [the practitioners] either believe in magic or perhaps are just dishonest.”

He particularly criticised those pushing ineffective treatments when there are perfectly good tested conventional methods. “This is especially unethical when the practitioner personally benefits, say by selling a line of herbal extracts or miracle foods or even an app or a cookbook.”

Speaking on April 15 to a National Press Club audience on the state of medical research in Australia, he focused part of his speech on the problems and dangers of unregulated complementary and alternative medicine.

“Ill health has attracted charlatans since time immemorial,” he said. “Snake oil merchants wanting to take your money by promising false hope. It’s false because it doesn’t offer hope or it’s ineffective.”

“We need to move away from magic.”

He thought that this sort of behaviour may have been understandable before science began to come up with real, effective treatments and cures. “But this is no longer justified.”

“It’s fairly astounding to see that 19th century quackery lingers into the 21st century. Did I say lingers? I should have said roars into the 21st century.

At one stage he spoke with obvious feeling of a friend who’s 30-year-old son suffered from a treatable cancer. The son was persuaded to use an alternative treatment and died within three months, “when they could have been alive today”.

“It’s distressing when unscrupulous people exploit the sick for their own personal gain, selling products that have no hope at all of helping the patient.

“It’s one thing when people sell magic therapies to the worried well. That’s mostly just a waste of money or expensive urine; perhaps a little placebo effect as well.

“But it’s an entirely different matter when people who are ill with a treatable illness are pushed therapies that don’t work and, in fact, are often implausible, pushed by practitioners who we must assume either believe in magic or perhaps are just dishonest.”

“I personally can see no excuse for practitioners or anybody urging people who are ill with diseases that are entirely treatable and even curable by what critics call conventional medicine, for those to be substituted by other treatments with an ineffective product.

“We tend to metaphorically shrug our shoulders when we hear of these cases, but we should not. We should take the same serious approach to so-called alternative medicine as we take to the pharmaceutical industry.

“If I were God what I would do is to say if you want to say something has a health benefit, you’ve got to provide some evidence about it.

He said complementary medicines – “some of which may work, and some of which does work” – do not have to go through the same Therapeutic Goods Administration approval process as the pharmaceutical industry.

“I can’t see the justification for that.”