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 wellbeing.
Alternative health therapies are also known as complementary or natural-health practices. Alternatives are typically not incorporated into the mainstream health-care system, though there are some exceptions.
Because many alternative therapies have not been scientifically verified, some people argue they are not credible. Studies of major therapies including 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.
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 of New Zealand is an example of such an alternative health practitioner 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 failed because the necessary legislation did not get enough support in the New Zealand Parliament. Another regulatory bill was introduced to Parliament in 2011.
Alternative health therapies have always been used in New Zealand, but user data was not collected until the later 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 2006/7 New Zealand Health Survey 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 wellbeing, while one in four wanted help with short-term and chronic illnesses. Women were more likely to use alternative practitioners than men.
Use of alternative health products, which are readily 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.
Chiropractic concentrates on the relationship between the spine and the nervous system. Chiropractors look for abnormal spine movements and positions (known as ‘subluxation’), which they correct in a process called adjustment – mainly the application of pressure to the affected area by hand, though instruments can also be used. Once adjustments are made, the body is believed to heal itself. Chiropractic is used to treat a range of ailments in addition to spinal problems, and also assists general wellbeing.
The first chiropractor in New Zealand, Tom Giles, practised in Dunedin from about 1910. The New Zealand Chiropractic Association was founded in 1920 to represent chiropractors, and a code of ethics was adopted in 1928. After decades of lobbying, the Chiropractic Act was passed in 1960 to officially regulate chiropractic. Only appropriately qualified people could call themselves chiropractors.
Attempts to have chiropractic treatments subsidised by the government and funded by the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) led to the Commission of Inquiry into Chiropractic in 1978. Despite efforts by the New Zealand Medical Association to portray the therapy as disreputable and unscientific, the inquiry concluded that it was effective and safe, and successfully recommended that it be subsidised.
In the 21st century chiropractors were regulated by the Chiropractic Board of New Zealand under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003. Chiropractors were represented by the New Zealand Chiropractors' Association and trained at the New Zealand College of Chiropractic in Auckland, or overseas. In the 2006/7 New Zealand Health Survey 5.4% of adults had seen a chiropractor in the last 12 months.
In New Zealand, alternative health practitioners like chiropractors and osteopaths (along with vets and dentists) sometimes use the title ‘Dr’. In doing so, they have to distinguish themselves from registered medical doctors. Under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003, people may only use names, titles and words that state or imply they are health practitioners if they are registered with the relevant regulatory authority.
Osteopathy is concerned with the relationship between the different parts of the body’s structure (bones, ligaments, muscles and organs). Imbalance between these parts is believed to cause physiological problems. Osteopaths gently manipulate the body with their hands to correct imbalances. They believe this allows the body to heal itself. Cranial osteopaths concentrate on the skull. Like chiropractic, osteopathy is used to treat a range of health complaints and to assist general wellbeing.
Osteopathy started in New Zealand in the early 1930s. Early practitioners were often qualified doctors. A professional association called the New Zealand Register of Osteopaths was established in 1973. Practitioners could only be registered if the committee deemed them suitably qualified.
The government recognised osteopathy as a legitimate health therapy in the late 1970s. The passing of the New Zealand Register of Osteopaths Incorporated Act 1978 meant that only members of the register could call themselves an osteopath. Osteopathic treatments were funded by ACC from 1986.
In the 21st century osteopaths were regulated by the Osteopathic Council of New Zealand under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003. Osteopaths were represented by Osteopaths New Zealand, and trained at UNITEC in Auckland, or overseas. In the 2006/7 New Zealand Health Survey 4.4% of adults had seen an osteopath in the previous 12 months.
From the 19th century onwards, massage had dubious connotations, because brothels were euphemistically described as massage parlours. In 1894 a reporter from the Observer newspaper wrote: ‘I shall keep my eye on our Auckland masseurs, or rather on the frauds who pretend to a knowledge of massage with a view to getting respectable women and girls into their clutches.’1 ‘Massage parlour’ remained synonymous with brothel in the 21st century.
Massage is the manipulation of soft tissue by hand. People typically visit massage therapists for relaxation purposes, but also for specific ailments like muscle aches and strains.
Therapeutic massage emerged in the late 19th century. Official training courses started at hospitals in Auckland and Dunedin in 1913. Trained therapists treated wounded soldiers during the First World War, and children suffering from polio.
Therapeutic massage as a part of conventional health care evolved into physiotherapy, but people could still become massage therapists without training as physiotherapists. Massage is unregulated. The representative organisation Massage New Zealand has a code of conduct and maintains a register of members.
Massage is a popular form of alternative therapy in New Zealand. In the 2006/7 New Zealand Health Survey, over half the respondents who had used an alternative therapy in the last 12 months visited a massage therapist.
Homeopathy is a system of alternative medicine based on the principle that like cures like. This means that a substance that causes particular symptoms in a healthy person can be used to treat a sick person suffering from those symptoms. Remedies are made by diluting substances (mainly of plant, mineral and animal origin). This process is called ‘potentising’ because practitioners believe the potency of the remedy increases the more it is diluted. This eliminates toxicity – homeopaths say their medicines are the safest in the world. Remedies are prescribed in pill or liquid form.
Homeopathy is one of the earliest forms of alternative western medicine practised in New Zealand. Early homeopathic practitioners were usually qualified doctors. Dr William Purdie, who settled in Dunedin in 1849, was the first known homeopathic doctor to practise in New Zealand.
The medical practice of homeopathic doctor Carl Fischer received a significant boost in 1854 when he saved the life of an injured woman. Jane Graham, the wife of a prominent Auckland businessman and politician, was severely injured when the upper floor of a shop collapsed on top of her. Fischer revived her after a number of conventional doctors failed to, and she survived her experience. His efforts received a lot of favourable publicity in the newspapers and new patients flocked to his practice.
In the 19th century homeopathy was popular. Patients preferred its gentle remedies and treatments to the often unpleasant and dangerous options offered by conventional practitioners. Partly because of the challenge it posed, homeopathy was criticised by the conventional medical profession, who saw it as quackery.
Though homeopathy became less popular as conventional medicine became dominant in the early 20th century, its resurgence in the late 20th century (along with other alternative therapies) made it the subject of renewed criticism. Critics argue that homeopathy is not scientifically verifiable and point to studies which show the remedies are no better than placebos. Homeopaths respond that remedies have been carefully proved and patient outcomes show they are effective. Some general practitioners use homeopathy in conjunction with conventional medicine.
Homeopathy is unregulated. The New Zealand Council of Homeopaths represented the profession since 2009 and had over 200 members in 2016. There were four manufacturing homeopathic pharmacies and four colleges in New Zealand. The 2006/7 New Zealand Health Survey found that of the 18% of respondents who used alternative heath care in the previous 12 months, one in four saw a homeopath or naturopath.
Naturopathy is an umbrella therapy – practitioners use herbal medicines, vitamins and minerals, homeopathy, aromatherapy, massage, and other natural products and therapies to help the body heal itself. Naturopaths are also concerned with diet and nutrition.
Herbal medicine in particular was an important form of health care in the 19th century. Traditional Māori communities used plants to heal, and Pākehā settlers brought herbal medicines from Europe.
Many native New Zealand plants were and are used medicinally by Māori, and some were adopted by Pākehā. Koromiko is used to treat dysentery and was listed as a remedy for diarrhoea in a British pharmacopoeia (a pharmaceutical encyclopedia) in 1895. Dried koromiko leaves were sent to Māori troops stationed in North Africa during the Second World War.
Catholic nun Suzanne Aubert was one of the best-known 19th-century practitioners. She based her remedies on native plants and used them to treat Māori patients. Aubert’s remedies were sold commercially in the 1890s. Another prominent later practitioner was Dr Ulric Williams, a conventional doctor turned naturopath. He treated patients at his Whanganui clinic for a number of decades from the 1930s. Williams emphasised nutrition and healthy living rather than herbal medicines.
Some practitioners were controversial. Indian-born herbalist Abraham Salaman, who emigrated to New Zealand in 1903, spent time in jail after two patients died, but his treatment was endorsed by many satisfied clients.
Naturopathy is unregulated. Naturopaths are represented by the New Zealand Society of Naturopaths. There are four colleges of naturopathy in New Zealand.
In the early 21st century there was renewed interest in rongoā – traditional Māori medicine. Rongoā healers typically used plant-based remedies and included a spiritual element in their practice. Ngā Ringa Whakahaere o te Iwi Māori, a national body of Māori healers, was set up in 1993.
Hypnotherapy is the best-known psychological alternative health therapy. It is the therapeutic use of hypnosis, which is the induction of a very relaxed mental state. A person under hypnosis is not asleep or unconscious, but is more receptive to suggestion than in normal consciousness. Hypnotherapy is predominantly used to treat health conditions which involve behaviour and thought, including depression, insomnia, addiction and phobias.
Hypnosis has been used for therapeutic purposes in New Zealand since the 19th century. Some medical doctors used hypnosis, but many practitioners were not medical professionals. This remained the case in the 21st century.
In 1986 the New Zealand Police drew up a policy and guidelines for police use of hypnosis. Only registered medical doctors or psychologists could hypnotise, and only witnesses could be hypnotised – not suspects. However, by the early 2000s the police deemed it a risky technique.
Hypnotherapy is unregulated. In the 2010s there were several professional organisations representing different strands of hypnotherapy which maintained codes of ethics and practice. The New Zealand Hypnotherapy Federation was the umbrella organisation. The New Zealand Hypnotherapists Registration Board was a self-regulatory agency which maintained a list of registered practitioners.
Other forms of alternative psychological therapy include Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which is based on the connections between language, negative thoughts, health and wellbeing. People are taught how to think positively automatically, which promotes healing and good health. NLP also studies successful people and identifies how their strategies can be used by others.
Journey therapists help clients to resolve problems by exploring and resolving underlying emotional causes, which is seen as going on a mental journey. Users say this has a positive impact on mental and physical health.
Rebirthing takes a client back to their birth mentally and emotionally, in order to resolve issues and problems.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a system of medicine which Chinese immigrants brought to New Zealand in the 19th century. TCM is based on two opposing but complementary principles: ‘yin’ (the female principle, associated with the earth, darkness and cold) and ‘yang’ (male, associated with heaven, light and warmth). Another fundamental element is ‘qi’ (pronounced ‘chee’), which is the life force that flows along the body’s pathways or meridians. Qi must flow correctly for yin and yang to be balanced. Incorrect flow and a corresponding imbalance between yin and yang is believed to lead to ill health.
TCM uses a range of therapies which, like other alternative practices, help the body to heal and maintain itself. These include herbal medicine, tuina (massage) and meditative exercise like qigong.
Acupuncture is the best known TCM therapy and is practised by western as well as Chinese health professionals. Fine stainless-steel needles are inserted at particular points in the body to free up the flow of qi. The location depends on symptoms and the reason treatment has been sought. Acupuncturists may also use acupressure (pressure applied to points by hand) and herbal medicines.
Acupuncture is used to treat animals as well as humans. Racehorse Special Ops (based in Rangiora) was given acupuncture when she was pregnant with twins in 2010. Canterbury veterinarian Virginia Williams recommended acupuncture as a treatment for animals with health problems like musculo-skeletal disorders and epilepsy.
Acupuncture was largely confined to the Chinese community until the 1970s. A group of New Zealand doctors visited China in 1974 to investigate acupuncture, which led to some doctors using it in their conventional practice to treat injuries and musculo-skeletal disorders. Acupuncturists treat a wider range of conditions.
Doctors tend to be more supportive of acupuncture than therapies such as homeopathy. By the 2000s it was one of the more popular therapies – in the 2006/7 New Zealand Health Survey one in five people who used alternative health practitioners in the previous 12 months saw an acupuncturist.
Acupuncture was being considered for regulation in 2016.The New Zealand Register of Acupuncturists (established in 1977) represents and monitors members, who must meet minimum entry requirements and undertake ongoing professional development before a practising certificate is issued. The Accident Compensation Corporation and some insurance companies fund treatments. There are schools of TCM (including acupuncture) in Wellington and Auckland.
Ayurveda is a system of medicine brought to New Zealand by Indian immigrants. It is concerned with achieving balance between the body, mind and spirit. The body is seen as comprising five elements (ether, air, fire, water and earth). Three doshas (life forces) control the body.
Herbal medicines, yoga, meditation, colour therapy and nutritional advice are key components of ayurvedic medicine. Practitioners believe that ayurveda removes disease-causing materials from the body, which promotes health and wellbeing.
Ayurvedic medicines are controversial because some contain toxic substances like lead. Known cases of lead poisoning in New Zealand associated with ayurvedic medicines have been traced back to products manufactured overseas.
Ayurveda is unregulated. The New Zealand Ayurveda & Yoga Therapy Association represents practitioners.
Faith healing is the use of religious faith to heal people who are troubled or ill or have physical or mental ailments. In New Zealand it is associated with organised religion, mainly Christian denominations, and has been practised since the 19th century. Typical elements include prayers, commands, and physical acts like anointing with oil or the laying on of hands (which confer a blessing and allow the subject to receive the Holy Spirit). People undergoing faith healing are not necessarily required to have religious faith themselves, but most do. The best-known faith healer in New Zealand history is Tahupōtiki Wīremu Rātana, founder of the Rātana Church.
Many denominations and churches have healing ministries which are part of their pastoral care programme. They are a form of counselling service, but practitioners also believe the sick can be directly healed.
Critics argue that the efficacy of faith healing has not been proved. They say that the number of people who claim to have been healed in this way is similar to the proportion of sick people who recover spontaneously, and that faith is, at best, a placebo. Another controversial aspect of faith healing is people’s choice of prayer rather than medical advice and care when they or their family members are unwell. Cases that involve children usually receive the most publicity.
Spiritual healing is a term synonymous with faith healing, but it can be non-religious in nature. Spiritual healers call upon a life force or ‘universal source’ to help patients get well. There are two main forms of spiritual healing:
The National Federation of Spiritual Healing (NZ) represents New Zealand-based healers.
Laughter yoga is an unusual form of yoga which combines laughter with breathing exercises. In 2010 there were nine laughter yoga clubs around the country, mostly in Auckland.
Meditation is the act of focusing the mind inwards for personal contemplation or relaxation, using repeated words and phrases or a significant object. Yoga combines certain postures with breathing exercises and meditation for similar purposes, or as a form of exercise. Both practices may have strong spiritual elements, but in New Zealand are not necessarily associated with religion as they are in Asia (where they first evolved).
Complementary and alternative health care in New Zealand: advice to the Minister of Health. Wellington: Ministerial Advisory Committee on Complementary and Alternative Health, 2004.
Dew, Kevin. Borderland practices: regulating alternative therapies in New Zealand. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2003.
‘From arsenic to zinc.’ Consumer 363 (September 1997): 24–27.
Leibrich, Julie, Janet Hickling, and George Pitt. In search of well-being: exploratory research into complementary therapies. Wellington: Health Services Research and Development Unit, Department of Health, 1987.
North, Nicola, Immigrant doctors practicing non-western medicine: a study of self-employed immigrant Chinese and Indian doctors practicing non-biomedical traditions of medicine. Palmerston North: New Settlers Programme, Massey University, 2008.
Results from the 2006/7 New Zealand Health Survey, including use of alternative health providers.
The Ministerial Advisory Committee on Complementary and Alternative Health advises the Minister of Health about issues relating to alternative health therapies.
Information about natural health products and therapies.
A non-profit society that supports and represents natural health-care professionals.
The New Zealand Medical Association’s online journal has many articles on alternative health practices.