Concern over billion dollar alternative medicine bill

September 16, 2002

Australians now spend an estimated $2.3 billion a year on alternative medicines and therapies, according to a major new study conducted by the University of Adelaide.

More than 3000 Australians were surveyed for the study by the University's Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology in conjunction with the South Australian Department of Human Services.

The study, published in this month's issue of the American journal Preventive Medicine, compares expenditure and usage of alternative therapies in the year 2000 with a previous study conducted by the department in 1993 (and published in Lancet).

The comparison shows a number of worrying trends, according to the study's key investigator, Professor Alastair MacLennan (Obstetrics & Gynaecology).

"Australians now spend four times as much on unproven therapies as on prescribed pharmaceuticals," Professor MacLennan says.

"While a few alternative medicines and therapies are proven to help some patients, what concerns me is the increased usage of unproven alternative therapies, many of which are costing the public more and more each year. Allowing for inflation, there has been a 120% increase in the cost of alternative therapies between 1993 and 2000."

The most recent survey shows a significant increase in the use of alternative therapies, with 44% of men and 60% of women using alternative medicines, and 20% of men and 26% of women now consulting alternative practitioners.

The public often assumes that alternative medicines promote health and are safe, but in many cases their effectiveness and long-term safety remains unknown or has been disproven, Professor MacLennan says.

"Even pregnant women make these assumptions without checking with their doctor," he says.

Professor MacLennan says alternative medicines should face the same rigorous testing and labelling requirements as standard pharmaceuticals.

"Our study shows that 93% of people who use alternative medicines would like product information on the packaging to the same standard as pharmaceuticals - such as the dosage, contents, potential side-effects and their evidence of effectiveness," he says.

"The public should have better evidence that their $2.3 billion a year is being put to sound use, and that the money they are spending on alternative medicines is not doing more harm than good."
Professor Alastair MacLennan, Obstetrics & Gynaecology: page him on 618-8161-7000, phone direct on 618-8161-7618, email:

University of Adelaide

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