Bad News and Good News from Down Under: Science-Based Medicine in Australia

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The bad news: in a disturbing attempt to woo customers, some Australian pharmacists are offering in-store consultations with naturopaths. The good news: Australian skeptics and supporters of science have had a lot of recent successes in combatting quackery.

Non-Doc in a Box

In an article in the Australian magazine The Skeptic, Loretta Marron reports on naturopaths in pharmacies. You can read it here. Pharmacy customers who want natural treatment alternatives are referred by pharmacy staff to an in-house naturopathy clinic. The cost, $90 for a one-hour consultation, is often covered by insurance. You can even get a Loyalty Card to make your fifth consultation free. They claim to “correct underlying causative factors,” advise about stress, diet, how to promote your vitality and immune system, etc. And they help you make informed decisions about your health (informed by their brand of misinformation).

They offer disproven diagnostic methods like iridology, live blood analysis, and bio-energetic screening with bogus machines that they claim can detect everything from vitamin deficiencies and parasites to “spinal energy” and “vaccination disturbance.” Marron doesn’t describe the treatments they recommend, but we can assume they are offering the usual naturopathic remedies, including homeopathy, in lieu of the pharmaceuticals that are the reason for the pharmacy’s existence.

As Marron points out, pharmacists have a duty to be personally and properly persuaded of the safety and effectiveness of what they offer. If they believe in naturopathy, they are misguided; if they don’t believe in it, they are unethically misleading their customers for profit. She urges honest science-based pharmacists to speak out.

The other FSM (not the Flying Spaghetti Monster)

Loretta Marron is Secretary, Chief Executive Officer and web administrator for Friends of Science in Medicine, an organization founded in Australia in 2011 to emphasize “the importance of having health care based on evidence, scientifically sound research and established scientific knowledge.” It now has over a thousand members from all over the world, including a Nobel Prize winner, many distinguished academics in medical and non-medical fields, and most of the writers on the SBM blog. Their activities are described on their website.

Marron’s personal efforts to combat quackery in Australia have included writing articles, giving radio interviews, and even going undercover to expose cancer quacks. She has twice won the “Skeptic of the Year” award.

Engaging government agencies and spreading the word

FSM has issued formal recommendations on pathology tests and other subjects and its members have engaged the mainstream media with countless articles. See here and here.

Australian skeptics have actively engaged with various government authorities like the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), submitting written protests on issues like VEGA and other bogus electrodiagnostic devices, Essence of Kangaroo testicle , and Esoteric Breast Massage for breast cancer, to mention just a few.

After exposure of pseudoscience in universities, a number of courses were cleaned up, for instance, craniosacral therapy at Victoria University was dropped from the curriculum, and Maquarie University stopped offering a degree in chiropractic. A prominent Australian academic quit his job when his university made a deal with a vitamin manufacturer as a step towards establishing a complementary medicine center.

Inappropriate information was removed from the websites of high profile organizations, including a WHO webpage on acupuncture; a Woolworths page on craniosacral therapy; the Victoria state government’s Better Health Channel information on acupuncture, homeopathy, Bowen Therapy, and kinesiology; and the Asthma Foundation of Western Australia’s statement on alternative medicine for asthma. AHPRA withdrew approval of antivaccination courses and courses on practice-building that targeted babies and children.

They have spread the word on Australian national television and YouTube. Australian television did an exposé on chiropractic. Australian Skeptics president Richard Saunders tested Power Balance wristbands on television, revealing that the sales demonstrations and testimonials were illusions due to the ideomotor effect and suggestion. There was a public outcry, and the government forced the company to remove false advertising claims. Soon after, it stopped doing business in Australia.

The Australian Skeptics have been very energetic in fighting quackery with numerous articles in their journal The Skeptic and campaigns like the Open Letter to the Pharmacists of Australia.

The Chiropractic Association of Australia and the Chiropractic Board were targeted, exposing rampant fundamentalist/antivax views and revealing that the Board had approved over 100 courses that were either based on pseudoscience or which made false, misleading, or exaggerated claims of treatment efficacy. A chiropractic surge into some primary schools in Victoria for free health checks was thwarted.

The misleadingly-named Australian Vaccination Network was forced to change its name to the more accurate Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network, and it lost its charity status for fundraising over misinformation claims.

Conclusion

If naturopaths belong anywhere, they certainly don’t belong in pharmacies. I hope Loretta Marron’s information on naturopaths in pharmacies will be widely disseminated and I hope Australian pharmacists will be shamed into acting more responsibly. Countering quackery and misinformation with science-based medicine is a constant struggle, a Sisyphean task with successes but with no prospect of complete “victory.” Australia is doing a commendable job and setting an example for other countries to follow.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.