Why RMIT continues to teach unproven practice or Alternative medicine at RMIT

by Evan Young | @thebevaneffect

As more and more people turn to alternative medicines in search of health gains, public demand is higher than ever.

In 2014, Complementary Medicines Australia found revenue for alternative therapies sat at $3.5 billion, up from over $2 billion the previous year and expected to grow again to $4.6 billion by 2018.

But despite swelling demand and sales, universities in Victoria remain apprehensive about teaching them.

Other than at RMIT University –where students can study complementary and Chinese medicine, chiropractic, osteopathy and acupuncture– there are few Victorian tertiary courses dedicated to comprehensively teaching such therapies.

Acclaimed medicine programs at world-renowned Victorian institutions such as Melbourne, La Trobe, Monash and Deakin universities do not comprehensibly cover any of the above, only offering courses and programs based in Western fields.

According to the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, complementary medicine is a term encompassing a wide range of alternative health care medicines, therapies and other practices: naturopathy, homeopathy, Chinese medicine and yoga, all generally considered outside the domain of conventional medicine.

Though the legitimacy of such things will continually be disputed, many believe the growing demand alone warrants their teaching.

RMIT’s  Professor of Health Sciences Marc Cohen is one of them, explaining both complementary medicine’s preventative approach to healing and its heavy use by the wider public shows there’s more than enough demand to justify its inclusion in university curriculums.

One of Australia’s pioneering experts on alternative and holistic medicine, Cohen’s degrees in traditional biomedicine and Chinese therapies spans three decades and the ever-growing divide between East and West, providing a unique perspective.

“Complementary medicine is all things that complement your health rather than just treating disease. It’s a different approach,” Cohen explains. “While some complementary medicines can be used to treat specific diseases, a lot of these approaches are used to stay healthy and not get sick in the first place.”

Heavily involved with research, media work and promotion of alternative medicine, Cohen is a busy man.  But as one of the only academics in Victoria’s education system with a belief it should be taught at universities, it’s no wonder he has as little spare time as others have faith in his philosophies.

“But now there’s more awareness not for using as medicine for treating specific illnesses, but for use of lifestyle measures to keep people healthy. It’s important that the next generation of doctors know about this.”

Photo - Nathan Brown
Photo – Nathan Brown

Professor and Associate Vice Chancellor at La Trobe University’s College of Science, Health and Engineering, Karen Dodd holds a different, more conventional view – one shared by most across Victoria.

“At La Trobe University we concentrate on Western medicine and pretty much keep fairly restricted to that for the courses we actually have,” says Dood. “We’ve concentrated on conventional disciplines.”

While Dodd agrees people should be able to explore alternative health avenues provided “there is a demand from the public and students”, she says it comes down to a lack of evidence to why universities don’t teach and promote them as much as their more established counterparts.

“At La Trobe we are largely on the side of the disciplines where there is an evidence base and there is a scientific basis.  We are approaching courses with the thought that there is evidence and a capacity and need to develop it. At this point, we are focusing on the Westernised anatomy, physiology and psychology- things [from] that kind of basis.”

“I’m not arrogant enough though to say that all interventions that we engage with are fully evidence based either, however there is an underlying philosophy that they are based on a conventional, scientific based wisdom. Universities are about developing knowledge and evidence, and so we tend to focus on the conventional.”

Monash University, another local institution renowned for its medical program, also strictly operates on an ‘evidence base’, explains Deputy Dean and physician Michelle Leech.

“Monash has a strong history of evidence based practice of medicine,” says Leech.  “[Though] at Monash students do learn about complementary medicine, Eastern medicines, alternative medicines, mindfulness and health enhancement, it is minimal.”

Predictably, Cohen disagrees with the notion complementary medicine is unable to stand up alongside its more eminent counterpart in terms of research and proof.

Having published a 1,300 page book Herbs and Natural Substances: An evidence based guide, Cohen rubbishes the idea alternative therapies are without evidence and says much of what’s being covered in most medical degrees are themselves unproven.

“When people say there’s no evidence, you point to things like that book, which is hugely significant in the amount of research of which it has got. It literally has thousands and thousands of research articles on herbs and supplements and food as medicine,” he says.

“And with most of the therapies that are currently being taught at universities, there’s a lot of research needed to increase the knowledge in the field. There’s still a lot we don’t know. Western medicine in comparison to alternative approaches –many of which have been around for far longer– is a relatively new practice.”

According to Dodd, a further reason behind decisions to neglect the inclusion of alternative therapies in curriculums is because the primary function of a university is to train students to enter the workforce- where more employment opportunities exist in more conventional fields.

At this point in time, hospitals and GPs generate far more employment opportunities for graduating students, and though the industry is expected to grow, last year Complementary Medicines Australia estimated the number of jobs in the industry was below 45,000 nationwide.

“Some of the employment opportunities at the end of Eastern courses are not as large as they would be at some of the bigger Western ones, such as physiotherapy for instance, in hospitals across the country- which is where most of the jobs are,” says Dodd.

“Almost all of the disciplines offered (at La Trobe) would actually be employed in a hospital or health service in a general sense: physio, speech pathology, nursing, dentistry and oral health- all of the things you would normally see employed in a normal health service in Australia.”

Photo - Nathan Brown
Photo – Nathan Brown

Despite a lack of support from others in the education sector, Cohen maintains it’s “critical” universities and tertiary educations embrace the ways of the East, if for no other reason than the next generation of mainstream medical practitioners can help Australia become a healthier nation.

“It’s critical to teach complementary medicine to students because there are some complementary therapies that are effective and safe for treating disease in a way which some Western therapies cannot,” he says. “Doctors also need to know about what their patients are using and the potential interactions with the medicines that they use.”

“It’s critical that all doctors have a knowledge of supplements and the use of complementary therapy because, as the public are learning, it is much, much more [than just] a fringe, unscientific discipline.”

Though in the eyes of many alternative medicine is much more than a fringe discipline, until there is some kind of breakthrough in terms of government or state approved research, it appears for now the occupational cap and minds of most tertiary educators remain closed.

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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