Thursday, 18 December 2014

A Summer Vacation Program student's reflection on the field of complementary medicine

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my motivation to apply for the SPHPM’s summer vacation program was at least partly fuelled by idealistic visions of contributing to research on a miraculous cure for cancer. So, naturally, you can imagine that my naïve ambitions were put momentarily on hold when I was faced with every medical student’s worst fear: my research project was to be on complementary and alternative medicines. Oh lord, the Monash-trained sceptic in me sighed. After my time at the SPHPM, however, I’ve learnt that perhaps it would be wise to be a little more open-minded.

During our four weeks on the sixth floor of the School, my colleague Grace and I have primarily researched and compared the advertising claims for various complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) products with the current clinical research to support their use. One advocate for consumer education, particularly in the field of CAMs, is our research supervisor Dr Ken Harvey, a one-man post-market regulator of CAM products and bane of overly enthusiastic supplement companies Australia-wide. Like a sort of public health Batman, mercilessly taking down CAM manufacturers making dubious advertising claims, Dr Ken is absolutely passionate about encouraging consumers to approach both CAMs and non-CAMs with a critical eye.

The reality of the field of CAM is that, in many cases, research can be scant or conflicting. Even more frustrating is the knowledge that it is impossible to really draw any conclusions in the absence of data, and instead it demands we approach everything with a certain degree of scepticism. And without a great deal of market regulation, it often comes down to consumers to gather research required to make informed decisions about CAM services and products. With this in mind, Dr Ken has been running a short course for the University of the Third Age on the topic of supplements and other CAMs.

On November 27, Dr Ken invited us to the last of his three sessions, a chance for us to gain a better insight into the concerns of average consumers. The audience predominantly consisted of elderly men and women wanting to learn more about the products they regularly used. The backgrounds of the audience members and level of scientific knowledge differed widely; I could help but quietly chuckle when an elderly European lady passed around a recipe for a ‘cold cure’ handed down to her from her mother. However, to my surprise, the evidence for or against CAM was not the focus of his presentation; rather, Dr Ken’s primary message was one stress the importance of open dialogue with our doctors and taking an active hand in the management of our health. Sometimes such an individual-centred approach can be tragically underemphasised in the way we approach matters of public health concern.

Regardless of our own beliefs and preferences, the reality is that, as medical practitioners and researchers, CAMs can be important to the patients that are important to us. We have to be professionals that a patient can have an open and non-judgemental discussion with. And if anything, observing the increasing popularity of CAM products and services should be an opportunity to examine the flaws in conventional practice. Ultimately, patients, doctors and other health professionals alike are all striving to reach the same goal of the best possible health outcome for each individual.

I’ve really valued my time at the SPHPM, and especially the feeling that my work has been a part of a greater whole. Public health can sometimes be challenging work, but it is also where change can occur on a population wide level. The Summer Vacation Program has been an incredibly valuable opportunity to improve my research and networking skills, and I hope that I will continue to keep in touch with the friends I have made here.


Written by Aaron Kovacs (Second year MBBS)


















1 comment:

  1. Like a sort of public health Batman, mercilessly taking down CAM manufacturers making dubious advertising claims, Dr Ken is absolutely passionate about encouraging consumers to approach both CAMs and non-CAMs with a critical eye.fotogalleri Andørja

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