Lead researcher Jon Wardle, of the School of Population Health, said the study of rural New South Wales highlighted the increasingly significant role that complementary medicine practitioners are playing in the healthcare system.
Mr Wardle said complementary medicine practitioners were present in high numbers across all degrees of rurality, and in areas that were both under-serviced and well-served by conventional health services.
Naturopaths followed by chiropractors were the largest groups, both having greater numbers individually than the rest of the groups combined.
“This suggests that patients are actively choosing these therapists, rather than being forced to because they can’t get in to see a ‘real’ doctor,” Mr Wardle said.
He added that in some areas there were actually more complementary medicine practitioners than there were general practitioners, and in no areas did complementary medicine practitioners number less than half the number of general practitioners.
“This research highlights the need to reform the way complementary medicine is delivered. As they exist outside the conventional sector, we have no idea what these practitioners are doing on the ground, and even more worryingly, the largest profession – naturopaths – is still entirely unregulated.”
“These aren’t fringe modalities being used by a few crackpots anymore. They are very much a major part of the Australian healthcare system. It’s time policy development and research caught on and started filling some of the massive gaps that currently exist in understanding these areas,” Mr Wardle said.
Mr Wardle said the focus on rural areas had debunked some myths around complementary medicine use in Australia.
“The first is that our previous research showed that Australians in rural areas were using complementary medicine practitioners more than those in the cities, even though most people tend to think of it as a ‘city’ thing.
“Secondly, there was this underlying assumption that this high use was because of ‘alternative’ communities such as Byron Bay skewing the numbers. This study shows that this just isn’t true, and that complementary medicine is being actively chosen by patients all across rural New South Wales.”
“This research shows that any existing moves to regulate these practitioners needs to be fast tracked,” Mr Wardle said.
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