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Complementary medicines

Complementary Medicine (CM) is a broad term used to describe a wide range of health care medicines, therapies (forms of treatment that do not involve medicines) and other products that are not generally considered within the domain of conventional medicine. It includes practices such as naturopathy and homeopathy, as well as general lifestyle-based disciplines such as yoga and Pilates. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has been concerned with reports of non-evidence based CM being used in place of evidence-based treatments for patients with serious but treatable conditions.

NHMRC believes it is vitally important that decisions for one’s health should be based on evidence. In the NHMRC Strategic Plan 2010–2012, ‘examining alternative therapy claims’ was identified as a major health issue for consideration by the organisation, including the provision of research funding. In the current Strategic Plan 2013–2015, NHMRC has broadened its focus to investigate the general issue  of ‘Claiming benefits for human health not based on evidence'.

Within our health system, there are practices which are currently not based on good evidence. In addition, outside our health system and its regulation, many other products and procedures are promoted as beneficial to health, often with little or no evidence of their benefit beyond the placebo effect. For these products and procedures, individuals may normally need no more protection beyond that afforded by usual regulatory processes and access to research evidence about them. However, sometimes patients may be misled into rejecting practices and treatments that are evidence-based in favour of non-evidence based practices and treatments.

With regard to CM, NHMRC is undertaking a number of activities that align with its commitment outlined in its Strategic Plan 2013–2015 with the aim of assisting Australians in making informed decisions about their health care. This includes consideration of the potential benefits and risks of each option using the available evidence. Current activities include:

  • Developing a resource for clinicians to facilitate discussion with patients regarding their use of CM.
  • Continuing to increase knowledge through the funding of investigator-driven research on CM through NHMRC's competitive, peer-reviewed grant application processes.
  • Reviewing the effectiveness of a range of CM using established methods for identifying and assessing evidence.

NHMRC also considers that health professionals have an ethical and professional obligation to understand the evidence base for any treatment they recommend, whether it’s conventional medicine or CM.

Talking with your patients about Complementary Medicine – a Resource for Clinicians

NHMRC, under the guidance of the Health Care Committee, has developed a resource for clinicians to facilitate discussion with patients regarding their use of CM.

Homeopathy review

As the first in a series of investigations into the evidence on CM, NHMRC is reviewing the evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy. Homeopathy is widely used in Australia and overseas and is one CM where the concept (dilution of an ‘active’ substance to almost zero and a hypothesis that water has a ‘memory') appears scientifically implausible.

Other Activities

Research Funding

NHMRC supports investigator-driven research into CM through its funding schemes such as Project Grants and Research Fellowships.   Since 2000, NHMRC has provided more than $86 million in funding for scientific research into complementary medicine and alternative therapies.

Development of evidence-based advice

The Office of NHMRC was commissioned by the Department of Health to perform a series of systematic reviews of systematic reviews (overviews) of the scientific literature examining the effectiveness and, where available, the safety and cost effectiveness of a number of natural therapies.

The outcomes of these reviews have been provided to the Department to assist them in their Review of the Australian Government Rebate on Private Health Insurance for Natural Therapies.


Page last updated on 16 January 2015