The backlash against universities offering complementary medicine courses

Loretta Marron writes: Like to be a 'doctor'? Interested in 'new age' medicine? Maybe you want t

Melissa Sweet — Health journalist and <a href=Croakey co-ordinator" class="author__portrait">

Melissa Sweet

Health journalist and Croakey co-ordinator

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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16 thoughts on “The backlash against universities offering complementary medicine courses

  1. Enrico Brik

    Thank you Alain for the enlightening detail on Phillip.

    Having a look at his web-site, I see that Dr Mary Ann Chance was (in life) and is (in spirit) Dr Ebrall’s writing mentor. So it’s not just Astrology and vertebral subluxation that he believes in, it’s the spirit world too.

    Oh dear. Perhaps Phillip you should be awarded a bent spoon…or do you already have one?

  2. braillon alain

    There is a website that sells posters as displays in chiropractic clinics with images designed to convince parents that chiropractic is effective for childhood health conditions:
    “Did you know that chiropractic can help with.. Irritability, asthma, colic, head asymmetry, feeding difficulties, bed wetting, AD /HD, constipation, learning difficulties, sleeping difficulties, ear infections, allergies, reflux/vomiting headaches”
    Philip Ebrall has posted a testimonial supporting these posters:
    “these images make a stunning statement about chiropractic. I know of no better way to communicate the chiropractic message.” A/Prof Phillip Ebrall, Head, Division of Chiropractic, RMIT University
    He also says he is “proudly Aries”???
    It is of concern that a HOD in a course promoted as science-based should have someone who believes in the stars and also that spinal manipulation is effective for children’s health conditions.

  3. braillon alain

    A very popular Australian book promoted by chiropractors is “Well Adjusted Babies” .
    It is used to convince parents of the benefits of chiropractic on their babies & very anti-vax.
    The author is Jennifer Barham-Floreani – the wife of the immediate past president of the CAA, Simon Floreani, (who was president when the CQU course was set up).
    They used homeopathic remedies to cure their baby of whooping cough.
    Philip Ebrall has a testimonial on their website:
    Well Adjusted Babies is a sensitive, touching and beautiful book about conception, pregnancy, delivery and parenting from a chiropractic perspective. The reader remains enthralled with the candour with which the author tells her journey and the passion she brings to the at times very sensitive subject matter.”
    —Dr Phillip Ebrall (Head, Division of Chiropractic, RMIT University)
    as does Anti-vaxer Meryl Dorey:
    “Well Adjusted Babies explains the risks associated with some of the more common aspects of modern living such as particular foods, drugs and household toxins, as well as the medical interventions that tend to feature commonly in orthodox models of pregnancy and birthing. Jennifer also discusses issues surrounding vaccination, breastfeeding and nutrition, encouraging the reader to ensure that the decisions that they make are ones that sit comfortably with their own beliefs and ethos.”
    —Meryl Dorey (Editor, Informed Voice Magazine)
    Excerpt from Well Adjusted Babies:
    10 reasons parents take their children to see a chiropractor:
    1. To maximise their child’s neural plasticity (brain and nerve development).
    2. To enhance their child’s overall health and wellbeing.
    3. To strengthen immunity and reduce the incidence of colds, ear-aches and general illness.
    4. To help with colic and Irritable Baby Syndrome.
    5. To help with asthma, breathing difficulties and allergies.
    6. To improve spinal posture.
    7. To improve their child’s ability to concentrate.
    8. To assist with behavioural disorders and enhance emotional wellbeing.
    9. To help alleviate digestive problems.
    10. To assist with bed-wetting and sleep issues.

  4. Enrico Brik

    Dear Phillip

    Thank you for the link – we use an Eastern European version of Google over here, its called Yugal.

    I note that the U of CQ has a number of campuses outside Central Queensland that specialise in foreign students, rather like my alma mater, the Scientific University of Bratislava.

    I also see that the ‘university’ has five campuses in ‘cities’ in Central Queensland, at least of some of which by their size we would call towns. Would it be that the U of CQ is more in the way of an aggregated polytechnic?

    Yours etc

    Dr Enrico Brik

  5. Phillip Ebrall


    I continue to respectfully wait for your response to my request above. In the meantime, can you please tell us why you specifically single out ‘cell-biology’ in this comment of yours? “Masquerading as real medicine, they sit side-by-side with real science-based subjects such as cell-biology and pharmacy.”

    Is it because Ian Darby, a signatory of the letter you constructed, is the course coordinator of that specific course (The Biology of the Cell) in the RMIT chiropractic program? And please tell us whether Ian has been embarrassed by questions from his superiors at his university as to why he is supporting your nonsense instead of getting on with the job of being a proper academic and ensuring his own course materials (for chiropractic students) are up to date and relevant?

  6. Phillip Ebrall


    You make the bold statement “I have also drawn attention in many circles (including TGA and national media) to the tragic and preventable deaths of children and infants, recorded in Coroner’s Reports, in situations where parents deny the children or infants access to proper medical care and rely instead on complementary “witch doctors” in the face of what turns out to be a life-threatening medical episodes (eg. pneumonia, or other overwhelming infections of some sort etc.).”

    Can you please provide any evidence you may have of all potentially preventable deaths of a child and infant whose parent/s took them to consult with a chiropractor in Australia?

  7. Phillip Ebrall


    I appreciate your country may not have access to Google so here is the link to Australia’s largest multi-city university:

  8. Phillip Ebrall

    edit – ‘as’ = ‘at’

  9. Phillip Ebrall


    You state the new chiropractic program in Queensland “is being run by the same people who helped the RMIT win the 2011 ‘Bent Spoon’ …”. Can you please name the “people” as to the best of my knowledge there is only one chiropractic academic currently employed as CQUniversity. The singular of people is person. A small point, but I do know you wish to see yourself as accurate.

  10. Phillip Ebrall


    Can you please provide evidence of the rate of harm from attending a chiropractor and the data that are descriptive of adverse events in Western medicine. I don’t mind if you choose to use figures only from Australia, but let’s get serious and have you either stand up and justify your nonsense statements about ‘serious or fatal’ remedies in relation to chiropractic, or withdraw your falsehoods. And please, I am not shooting the messenger, just his inability to identify or provide any evidence.

  11. Archer

    Booker Kristen @4

    I trust you’ve heard of the Penelope Dingle story? Her bowel cancer was treated by a Homeopath, read her letter below. She died an excruciating death.

  12. ron batagol

    So, because, over time and with worldwide application and positive health gains , there is an inevitable degree of potential sub-optimal or innappropriate application of proven therapies and medical treatments, for which we all need to be vigilant and try to improve, as in any area of science and technology, you suggest that public health is going to be improved with an alternative starting point of endorsing, teaching and then partially publicly funding and therfore encouraging, the use of shonky, unproven “remedies” in potentially serious or fatal, and often rapidly progressing diseases! So, apart from shooting the messengers, your logical argument for this is ???????????

  13. Booker Kristen

    A backlash? I don’t think so!

    Just Ms Marron (a vigilante with a grudge against anything not actively promoted by the AMA) and a small group of old school scientists who are finding the challenge of their paradigms a little hard to take!

    Perhaps those concerned with the public’s health and safety should first concentrate their efforts on those areas with actual negative health impacts – poor prescribing habits and the over use of pharmaceuticals and surgery.

    How many cases of “tragic and preventable” death have there been from medical doctors? Let’s address the REAL safety issues first.

  14. braillon alain

    Even worst in France where the Afssaps (the French Therapeutic Goods Administration) believes in homeopathy. It issued a national warning to pharmacists and doctors because a homoeopathic company mixed up the labels of two products … ignoring that both containing no measurable active ingredients.
    Homoeopathic remedies and drug-regulatory authorities Lancet. 2010 23;375:279-80

    see also:
    Homeopathic leak threatens catastrophe

    Alain Braillon MD PhD
    Senior consultant (tenured at the national exam, score 150/150) sacked for whistleblowing by the French Dept of Health against the vote of more than 70% of the members of the National Statutory Committee. Meanwhile my boss, chairman of the addiction committee at the National academy of medicine, is being sued for libel by the tobacconists’ union.

  15. ron batagol

    It’s about time that someone with academic clout flexed their muscles to try to curb the proliferation of the burgoning army of pseudo-scientific “graduates” such as homeopaths etc. I have been advocating for some time now that the Health Funds be obliged to cease reimbursing people who go to these people for “consultation”, since 30% of the premium paid by these clients is picked up by the taxpayer!! I have also drawn attention in many circles ( including TGA and national media) to the tragic and preventable deaths of children and infants, recorded in Coroner’s Reports, in situations where parents deny the children or infants access to proper medical care and rely instead on complementary “witch doctors” in the face of what turns out to be a life-threatening medical episodes (eg. pneumonia, or other overwhelming infections of some sort etc.). My suggestion that TGA ban complementary medicines from sale to infants and childen under the age of 12 years has so far fallen on deaf ears!!!

  16. Enrico Brik

    Touche, Loretta. And thanks to Prof John Dwyer and his colleagues for maintaining the standards against the threat of pseudo-science, faux clinicians and other charlatans.

    Wouldn’t mind employing a bit of vertebral subluxation on them myself – bend more than their damn spoons…

    Dr Enrico Brik (Hon Doctorate, Scientific University of Bratislava – Boggabri campus).

    PS Where exactly IS the Central University of Queensland? Does it really exist?

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