Loretta Marron writes:

Like to be a ‘doctor’? Interested in ‘new age’ medicine? Maybe you want to go to Uni but your entrance score is not up to scratch.  Don’t give up!  Why not check out your local college and see what’s on offer as there just may be a course tailor-made for you.

Nearly one third of medical and health science faculties are now including complementary or alternative medicine courses that may offer little more than ‘voodoo’ or pseudo-science such as ‘energy medicine’ and ‘fundamentalist’ chiropractic.  Masquerading as real medicine, they sit side-by-side with real science-based subjects such as cell-biology and pharmacy.

So what’s wrong with a bit of ‘woo’ in the health system – surely it can do no harm?

That’s not the opinion of over 30 of our most prominent doctors and scientists hailing from universities across Australia, who this week joined ranks to voice their concerns as yet another university has announced plans to introduce anti-science into their curriculum.

Fundamentalist philosophy is based on a belief that chiropractic adjustments can cure 95% of what ails man.  Worried that a new chiropractic degree may encourage inappropriate treatments on sick babies and children, they broke their silence to expose not just this course, but the goings on in their own establishments and to warn the public.

At the fore-front of this campaign are questions about the Central Queensland University (CQU)’s Bachelor of Science (Chiropractic) which opens in 2012 and which is being run by the same people who helped the RMIT win the 2011  ‘Bent Spoon’, an annual trophy from the Australian Skeptics “presented to the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudoscientific piffle”.

According to Flinders University-based neuroscientist Prof Marcello Costa,It is disturbing to see a centre of learning, of supposed excellence, teaching and perpetuating health practices based on beliefs in principles that are totally unscientific”.

His comments were joined by prominent science writer and broadcaster, Professorial Fellow Rob Morrison, South Australian-based Prof Alastair MacLennan from the School of Paediatrics & Reproductive Health, The Women’s and Children’s Hospital and by Emeritus Prof John Dwyer AO, the Founder of the Australian Health Care Reform Alliance and the clinical consultant to the NSW Government’s Inter-Agency committee on Health Care fraud.

Prof Morrison commented that, “Alternative therapies may have a placebo effect, but wrapping them up as science and discussing them in the same way as treatments that pass rigorous efficacy and safety tests is harmful for everyone”.

Prof Alastair MacLennan added that “the issue is much bigger than CQU’s chiropractic course and we condemn the “teaching” of unproven beliefs such as homeopathy, naturopathy and iridology in public institutions”.

Prof Dwyer was concerned that it made it “increasingly difficult to encourage patients to accept only evidence-based treatments for their problems when some universities and indeed private health insurers, provide unacceptable, often dangerous practices with undeserved credibility.”

All agreed that they were not trying to stop the public using alternative therapies and supported research into their efficacy.  They also agreed that these courses should not be Government funded because their introduction “encourages the spread of quackery within the Australian Health System, misuses the public’s health dollars, encourages unnecessary ‘treatments’ and may delay effective treatment when true disease is present.”

So should  the Federal Government fund these courses?  Should they even regulate claims made for health services the same way they do for therapeutic goods? And should health funds reimburse patients who want to use them?

Perhaps inadequate Government funding for our Universities, the lack of interest in real science amongst our youths and the increase in consumer demands for all things ‘natural’ are sending us back to the dark ages.

Once deemed to be pillars of ‘excellence and enlightenment’, let’s hope this campaign will help restore the fading reputation of these formerly prestigious institutions and slow down the explosion of quackery that continues to  target our most vulnerable patients, with the potential for tragic results.

• Loretta Marron is a former Australian Skeptic of the Year. See here for some of her previous articles.

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