Alternative health therapies encompass a range of health and wellbeing-related treatments and products which contrast with conventional medicine in their philosophy and practice. Rather than alleviating or eliminating symptoms with drugs and surgery, treatments are intended to help the body heal itself or improve and maintain well-being.
Alternative health therapies are also known as complementary or natural-health practices. They are typically not incorporated into the mainstream health-care system, though there are some exceptions.
Recognition and regulation
Because many alternative therapies have not been scientifically verified, some people argue they are not credible. Studies of acupuncture, chiropractic and osteopathy have found some evidence of benefits. These therapies are part of the conventional health system, and treatments are funded by the Accident Compensation Corporation. The Medical Council of New Zealand supports the use of alternative therapies and medicines where they have demonstrated benefits and minimal risks. Some general practitioners use alternative therapies, while others refer patients to alternative practitioners.
On the run
In the late 1990s Otago couple Trena Williams and Brendan Holloway were unhappy about the side-effects and uncertain outcome of the chemotherapy treatments their young son Liam was receiving for cancer. They decided to stop the conventional treatment and seek alternative treatment instead. Health officials got a court order for Liam’s guardianship so he could receive chemotherapy, but his parents took him into hiding. Liam died at an alternative health clinic in Mexico in 2000.
Alternative health therapies are supported by many users. The natural-health industry is economically significant in the 2010s – the natural-product sector is worth about $1 billion annually. Important exports include marine-based products, bee products, deer velvet, and dietary and mineral supplements.
Most alternative health therapies are unregulated – anyone can practise them, whether they are trained or not. Chiropractic and osteopathy, which are covered by the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003, are the only exceptions.
Practitioner groups monitor the unregulated parts of the industry. They have codes of conduct and ethics which members are expected to abide by. Members of the public can approach these organisations if they have complaints. Natural Health Practitioners New Zealand is one such group.
Most alternative health products are classed as dietary supplements rather than medicines and are regulated as food products. Therapeutic claims (for example, that the product prevents disease or alters the body) cannot be included on labels for this reason. Alternative products may be classed as medicines if therapeutic claims are legitimately made under the Medicines Act 1981 or the ingredients are classified as medicinal.
In 2003 around 2,000 alternative health products manufactured by the Australian company Pan Pharmaceuticals were recalled from New Zealand shop shelves. Australian users of Pan-made travel-sickness pills had experienced serious side effects, and the company’s licence was suspended for six months, leading to the recall. Many New Zealand alternative health businesses were affected because they used Pan to make their products. One company, Health 2000, said the recall led to a 17–20% drop in sales. Apart from the travel pills, none of the recalled products were proved to be unsafe.
In the early 2000s the New Zealand and Australian governments tried to establish a trans-Tasman agency to regulate the quality, safety, effectiveness and performance of therapeutic products, including alternative products. This endeavour failed because the necessary legislation did not get enough support in the New Zealand Parliament. Another regulatory bill, which was supported by the New Zealand natural products industry, was introduced to Parliament in 2011. This legislation lapsed before the 2017 general election and was not reinstated by the incoming Labour/New Zealand First government.
Use of alternative health care
Alternative health therapies have always been used in New Zealand, but user data was not collected until the late 20th century. A 1987 Department of Health study noted that although data was sparse, the increase in health-food shops, alternative-health conferences and membership of practitioner associations in the 1980s suggested that significantly more New Zealanders were using alternative health care than in preceding decades.
The New Zealand Health Survey last measured alternative health practitioner use in 2006/7. It found that almost one in five adults surveyed had visited an alternative health practitioner in the previous 12 months. Half did so for reasons of general physical well-being, while one in four wanted help with short-term or chronic illnesses. Women were more likely to use alternative practitioners than men.
Use of alternative health products which are available in pharmacies and health-food shops without prescription is higher – 36% of people in a 2003 New Zealand Herald survey used these products, as did 70% of respondents in a 2007 study of children under general practice and paediatric outpatient care.
Common reasons why people choose alternative health methods include dissatisfaction with conventional medical treatment and a desire to avoid pharmaceutical products.