Australia’s complementary medicines industry is a fast growing, and profitable one. With revenues touching nearly $5 billion, and exponential growth of around $2 billion over the past two years, it is now a major sector of the healthcare industry with consumers appetite for complementary medicines clearly growing.
Research by the Consumers Health Forum found that those who use complementary medicines think differently about them compared to conventional medicines, particularly compared to prescription medicines. Many consumers saw their complementary medicines use as ‘natural’ and part of a holistic view of health. Few consumers understand that the issues around complementary medicine are multifaceted, complex and often contestable.
People with chronic pain conditions sometimes explore complementary medicine as a way of balancing their treatment or searching for alternatives to conventional therapy that may not be working for them. Some consumers see taking complementary medicines as an alternative to getting medical advice which may be more costly or difficult to access.
Consumers clearly believe there are real benefits in using complementary medicine, but what do we know about the products they are using? What safeguards are in place in terms of regulation, consumer protection and testing for quality, consistency and effectiveness?
Most consumers who take complementary medicines don’t know that they are also medicines and may interact with other prescription medications that they may also be taking.
Industry proponents argue that complementary medicine provides support and adds value to healthy choices, allowing consumers to self-regulate their medication based on their specific needs.
Many consumers may also be self-managing their chronic pain, which means they are more reliant on the labelling and packaging of complementary medicines for information. While many of these products are labelled as ‘scientifically formulated’ and ‘clinically tested’, exactly what these terms mean is often obscure.
Another problem is that herbal products consist of a complex mix of chemical ingredients. Variability can be caused by the use of different species or subspecies, growth conditions, methods of cultivation, the time of year and stage of growth cycle harvested, extraction methods, and formulation and storage of the finished product. Even glucosamine (used for arthritis) is available as several salts, in many different formulations and with varied evidence of efficacy from clinical trials.
Chronic pain is often complex, and people try many different products and treatments to manage their pain. It is important that there is a clearer emphasis on providing consumers with information on side effects and highlighting that interactions are possible – and that discussing use of complementary medicines with a health professional is important.