By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
A group of more than 400 doctors, medical researchers and scientists are urging universities to close down alternative medicine degrees.
Almost one in three Australian universities now offer courses in some form of alternative therapy or complementary medicine, including traditional Chinese herbal medicine, chiropractics, homeopathy, naturopathy, reflexology and aromatherapy.
The new group called “Friends of Science in Medicine” has written to vice-chancellors last week, warning that by giving “undeserved credibility to what in many cases would be better described as quackery” and by “failing to champion evidence-based science and medicine”, the universities are trashing their reputation as bastions of scientific rigor.
The group consists of world-renowned biologist Sir Gustav Nossal and the creator of the cervical cancer vaccine Professor Ian Frazer among its members. It is also campaigning for private health insurance providers to stop providing rebates for alternative medical treatments.
A co-founder of the group, Emeritus Professor John Dwyer, of the University of NSW, who is also a government adviser on consumer health fraud, said it was distressing that 19 universities were now offering “degrees in pseudo science”. “It's deplorable, but we didn't realize how much concern there was out there for universities' reputations until we tapped into it,” Professor Dwyer said. “We're saying enough is enough. Taxpayers' money should not be wasted on funding [these courses] … nor should government health insurance rebates be wasted on this nonsense.”
Professor Dwyer said it was particularly galling that such courses were growing in popularity while, at the same time, the federal government was looking at ways to get the Therapeutic Goods Administration to enforce tougher proof-of-efficacy criteria for complementary medicines, following the release of a highly critical review by the Australian National Audit Office last September. Of particular concern to the group is the increase in chiropractic courses, following the recent announcement of a new chiropractic science degree by Central Queensland University.
German and British medical insurance providers are also in the process of removing alternative therapies from the list of treatments they will cover. Australia's vice-chancellors will meet in March and Professor Dwyer said his group was aiming to get a commitment from them to endorse health courses only with evidence-based science.
The spokesman for Universities Australia said tertiary institutions were self-accrediting. “[They have] the autonomy … to ensure the quality and relevance of the courses they offer,” he said. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, a government body set up to regulate higher education, refused to comment.