The Great Medical Divide

The Great Medical Divide

The merging of Eastern and Western medicine in Australia

  • Both medicines are merging together in hospitals and clinics across Australia
  • Doctors and specialists are divided on the issue
  • The Australian public are being given conflicting expert opinions
  • What does this mean for the future?

Report by Laura House

NEXT time you think about what medical path you choose, make sure you do your research. With professionals across the country often having polar opposite opinions on the best medical treatment for you, research has never been so important.

Medicine in Australia has always been a controversial and heavily debated topic, with funding, cures, research and techniques always under scrutiny by the Australian public.

The convergence of natural alternative medicines and therapies with scientific based medicines in Australia is something that is occurring across the nation and is a trend causing a divide in the medical community and forcing the public to question which form of medicine is best suited to them.

While many experts across Australia are pushing the merge, there are others who believe the acceptance of alternative medicines is a nightmare for the future of Australian medicines. So which is method is better? And how do we know what’s truly best for our bodies?

What are the main differences between Eastern and Western medicine techniques?

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Western medicine is scientific, with treatments created in laboratories by doctors and is solely evidence-based. Eastern medicine is often natural and/or herbal and can be grown and put together by almost anyone.

It originated in Eastern countries and is most notably promoted by China through their traditional Chinese medicine.

According to Taylor and Francis, under the division of labour of Western medicine:

“The medical physician treats the body of patients, the social worker attends to their emotions and social relations, while the pastoral counselor provides spiritual guidance.”

However in, Eastern medicine:

“Eastern philosophies of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chinese medicine adopt a holistic conceptualization of an individual and his or her environment” – “health is perceived as a harmonious equilibrium that exists between the interplay of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’.”

Eastern medicine is also referred to as “complementary medicine” in Australia, defined by the Australian Government as “medicinal products containing such ingredients as herbs, vitamins, minerals, nutritional supplements, homeopathic and certain aromatherapy preparations.”

So in simpler terms, Western medicine operates on a fix what’s broken approach, where as Eastern medicine operates by influencing positive health no matter what state the body is in.

The Great Divide 

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With Eastern based medicines influencing many Western medicines and the Eastern natural based methods the basis of many natural techniques such, as Chinese medicine and chiropracting, many hospitals and clinics across Australia are choosing to combine both medicines together.

Universities across the nation are also choosing to teach a number of eastern methods such as Chinese medicine, naturopathy and homeopathy to their students.

Dr. Matthew Leach, Senior Lecturer and Higher Degree Research Coordinator within the school of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of South Australia, believes natural, eastern based medicines are becoming more common in Australia each day.

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According to the World Health Organisation, in developed countries, over 80% of the population has used some form of complementary medicine or care, and in developing countries, 80% of the population depend on traditional medicines for primary health care.

With these medicines becoming so popular across the world, Australians are barely researching these therapies before investing in them, often not seeking any medical advice before beginning a natural program or visiting an alternative medicine clinic.

Dr. Matthew Leach

Dr. Matthew Leach

Twenty year old theatre student Bethany Metcalf-Allan has spent over three hundred dollars on traditional Chinese vitamins including CoQ10, a self-proclaimed powerful antioxidant that claims to improve brain function, energy, endurance and good health.

Due to her physically demanding field, she felt as though she needed a natural pick me up and cure to her constant fatigue.

“After hearing all the hype about natural medicines, I invested a lot of money into a variety of traditional Chinese vitamins. After spending about a year trying a bunch of different things, I noticed no change in my body, no change in my energy and overall my health remained the same. With generally good health, the vitamins often affected me negatively as well. For example, I had no appetite and experienced insomnia while taking the CoQ10. These side effects were not explained to me before use by anybody. At the end of the day I think I’d be better off seeing my GP.”

Many doctors, lawyers and scientists are banding together to combat this merging, believing Eastern natural methods are ruining Australia’s medical reputation and lack the evidence necessary to be recommended and utilised by medical professionals.

One of the groups that has formed to combat the merging is ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ (FSM), established in 2011 by medical professionals to prevent the teaching of complementary and alternative medicines in Australia and to warn the public of the, as they claim, “considerable cost” of these “unproven interventions.”

Founding President Professor John Dwyer explains what the group is about:

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With over 800 members to date, the group is committed to fighting the increase of natural medicines in Australia’s hospitals and clinics, claiming these medicines are often “not effective” and are “not based on any scientific principle”, “deceive the public, often for financial gain; and at their best, only ameliorate only minor ailments.”

Prof. John Dwyer

Prof. John Dwyer

FSM firmly believes the medicines usually work because of “the well-known placebo effect” and at their worst, “are unnecessarily dangerous – either because they cause direct harm of because they delay effective treatments.”

A number of notable individuals and organisations have committed to the groups’ principles, including the Australasian Menopause Society, Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, Professor David Allen, President of the Australian Physiological Society and Dr. Peter Arnold, Deputy President of the NSW Medical Board.

Professor John Dwyer believes that if doctors continue to retreat from traditional Western medicine and include alternative medicines, the outcome could be dangerous:

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Alternative Medicines and Serious Illnesses

When it comes to the treatment of serious illness, in particular cancer, natural medicines have been known to not only have no effect, but a harmful one.

Director of Health Strategies of Cancer Council NSW Kathy Chapman warns Australians on her blog.

“People with cancer tend to be very keen to find that “special something” to give them an edge in their fight against what is usually a frightening diagnosis… those facing a battle with cancer deserve to know the full picture of what will and won’t help them survive their illness.”

Chapman, although admitting that some natural medicines assist in relaxation and stress relief, raises the World Research Cancer Fund’s 2007 report which found a number of problems with alternative medicine use and cancer treatment:

  • “Two of the trials, which involve people given high doses of beta-carotene, found the supplement was associated with a higher risk of lung cancer in smokers, while a third study showed neither benefit nor harm.”
  • “A meta-analysis of 47 high-quality trials found there was a slightly increased risk of mortality from antioxidant supplements in the general population.”
  • The most recent review of multivitamin studies involving 91,000 participants found daily vitamin supplements don’t reduce the risk of dying from cancer or other causes of death.

The Cancer Council also clearly states on their website:

“Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional medical treatments. Alternative therapies are often promoted as “cancer cures” but they are unproven and have not been scientifically tested. They may cause harm or suffering to those who use them instead of conventional medical treatments. Examples of alternative therapies include naturopathy, immune therapy, homeopathy, Chinese herbs and mega vitamins.”

Professor John Dwyer agrees and believes Australians need to be aware of what they are taking.

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Therefore people who are suffering from cancer, or any other serious illness, are encouraged to seek advice from a medical professional before taking any natural medicines.

However, there are some experts who believe the only answer is natural medicine. Dr. Ian Gawler, an Australian cancer survivor, author and mind-body expert believes natural medicine and meditation is crucial to prevention and treatment of disease and illness.

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Dr. Ian Gawler relies on meditation, a long standing tradition in many Asian countries including Japan and China, and the power of the mind in his treatments.

After surviving two bouts of bone cancer, a leg amputation and a bleak prognosis, through an “intensive health regime including good food, positive attitudes, meditation and loving support,” he defied the odds and is well today.

Following his experience he has developed the Gawler foundation and dedicates his life to motivating, inspiring and teaching others about the power of meditation and the mind in healing.

Dr. Ian Gawler

Dr. Ian Gawler

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Dr. Gawler also believes that lifestyle medicine and natural, mind therapies are essential in combating chronic degenerative diseases.

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When it comes to groups such as Friends of Science in Medicine, Dr. Gawler disagrees with their principles and urges the Australian public to try and see some perspective when researching alternative and natural medicines.

Dr. Gawler says the prevention of complementary medicine teaching is definitely the wrong focus.

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Dr. Matthew Leach also disagrees with FSM’s belief that natural and alternative medicines are not evidence based.

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The Future of Combined Medicine in Australia

With such a large following behind groups like FSM and so many doctors embracing natural and alternative medicines, the divide that is being caused by the convergence of these two medicine styles is clear.

As a result the Australian public is also divided on the matter, with their personal GP’s often dictating what they believe. With a relatively misunderstood field, the Australian public have a right to be included in discussions on this topic and to know the regulations and policies when it comes to non-science based medicines.

So what are the regulations and what can we expect from the medicine community moving forward?

Dr. Gawler does believe public discussion is necessary when it comes to the future:

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The Australian Government is dedicated to providing the best medical care to citizens and therefore are always reviewing regulations and policies surrounding heavily debated techniques and medicines.

As the convergence of Eastern and Western medicine continues, there are a number of government groups that are dedicated to researching each field and ignoring the stronger, more influential opinions out there. The Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 dictates the majority of regulations in this field however a more comprehensive outline of the legal regulations can be found here.

The National Health and Medical Research Council is responding to reports of a lack of evidence in alternative medicines and following their NHMRC Strategic Plan 2010-12 has provided more than $75 million in funding for rigorous scientific research into complementary and alternative medicines.

They have created professional guidelines for medical professionals and are currently working with the Department of Health and Ageing on a review of the Australian Government Rebate on Private Health Insurance for natural therapies.

According to Dr. John Dwyer, there are also a number of inquiries going on in the government that are not as well known by the public.

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As a result the public are looking to a future where there are strong, researched guidelines on both medicines and a strong medical system tailored to each Australian’s personal medical needs.

This research is aiming to close the gap between the opposing sides and bring everyone together to provide a thorough, effective and successful medical system.

Experts remind Australians to make sure they do their research before agreeing to any medical treatment, be it Eastern or Western based, and make sure they move outside of the Internet for a professional opinion.

Although the gap is likely to close as a result of a progressing research base, groups like FSM are dedicated to their principles and are in no way backing down any time soon.

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The Australian Health Practicioner Regulation Agency invites all public comments on the system here before May 30.