Written by Renee Bruce & Lynette Fergusson
Most people you ask would rate being healthy as one of the top priorities in their life. Being unhealthy impacts people’s lives in so many ways, ie: they might not live to see their kids grow up, they can’t take the dog for a walk, they suffer from constant aches and pains. The discussion about health and how to become, or stay, healthy is therefore one of the most talked about topics in societies. There are many options to help people be healthy ranging from the traditional science of medicine to the age-old philosophy of alternative therapies.
Traditional medicine is a very regulated profession. We frequently hear of the modern miracles health care professionals perform. We also hear about the tragedies that occur either by negligence or some unfortunate outcome. Modern medicine is, after all, a science, and is therefore not infallible. Neither are the people who practice medicine – they are human – and like all humans, can make mistakes.
Alternative therapies such as naturopathy, homeopathy and kinesiology have been practiced for centuries but these methods of healing are not recognised as a science in the traditional sense. And what about the alternative therapy health care practitioners? How well regulated are they and how often do we hear about miracles they have facilitated or negligence claims against them? Like the scientific model of medicine, alternative medicine is also not infallible and the practitioners are human too and can make mistakes yet these alternative health care practitioners are almost untouchable from the arms of the healthcare regulators. Or are they?
After two years of research, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) recently handed down their formal position statement on the status of homeopathy. The nation’s peak medical research body declared there were “no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective” (NH&MRC). In going one step further, the head of the NH&MRC has criticised pharmacists for continuing to “flog homeopathy to patients” knowing there is no evidence that it works (AusDoc). So where does that leave homeopathy and the thousands of people who rely on this form of therapy to feel healthy?
The debate about the efficacy of complementary and alternative medicines has raged for decades in the medical arena, occasionally bubbling over into the media. That, however, hasn’t stopped consumers who, for whatever reason – be it a distrust in modern medicine or those looking for another option to improve their health – from seeking alternative ways of healing. The question is why?
Perhaps it is clever marketing? Perhaps those of us who work under the traditional healthcare model of evidence based medicine are missing something? Complementary and alternative medicines are frequently promoted with a promise modern medicine often cannot deliver. Is that the lure? Maybe it’s the relative ease with which you can purchase these products without a costly trip to the doctor?
Certainly the traditional medical model is much more conservative when it comes to promoting benefits or positive outcomes. Any such benefits are required by law to be balanced by the more serious – albeit often infrequent – adverse outcomes. Processes such as gaining informed consent for procedures that may cause harm can seem like a lot of rigmarole, but they really do help patients make an informed decision about what they are about to undergo. These types of processes are less regulated in alternative medicine where often an explanation is all that is undertaken with no formal documentation of the discussion and decision made by the consumer.
As stated earlier, maybe it’s the ease of obtaining a medicinal solution that appeals to those seeking alternative therapies? One doesn’t have to navigate the complicated web of GP referrals to specialists and waiting on lengthy waiting lists – even for private consultations. Instead the consumer has much more control over their own health destiny.
These days healthcare consumers have so much information at their fingertips that helps them to make decisions about the treatment pathway they wish to take when they feel unwell. They also have much wider access to a variety of treatment options, either in traditional medicine or alternative therapies. In the search for a remedy they may well have encountered the traditional medical professionals but not found a suitable resolution to their ailment. Word of mouth amongst friends often leads people to consider other forms of health care, including visiting alternative medicine practitioners such as a homoeopathist. Or they may have done their own Dr Google search for a solution and seen the numerous websites extolling the virtues of homeopathic medicines over traditional medicines. And so they make their decision.
After all, how bad can homeopathic medicines be for you? They are natural substances so logic tells us that they must be good for us, or at least can’t do us any harm. Clearly people aren’t discussing substances such as cyanide or arsenic or botulin toxin when they consider natural therapies, but these substances are all equally naturally occurring but all deadly in the right doses.
So there must be something else that appeals to consumers about homeopathy even in the face of hard evidence that there is in fact no evidence to support its use. That something has to be related to the belief systems of those who practice homeopathy and to those consumers who use it to feel healthy.
Belief systems are personal, they are owned by the individual and they often defy the logic of modern society. For those who work in the marketing world, the ability to tap into these belief systems would enable companies to gain life-long consumer followers. But marketing does need to take an ethical position when it comes to marketing products of questionable value to the consumer.