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When asked to consider the biggest battles between reason and faith, most of us are likely to think of terrorism. But there are more everyday versions of protest politics that are playing out in fields such as health and nutrition which may not fall into the traditional definitions of religion or faith.
The government is likely to slash the rebates given to private insurers to support alternative therapies such as naturopathy, Chinese herbal remedies and homeopathy. Such therapies are responsible for the biggest increase in non hospital services- a whopping 345 percent increase in a decade.
This is entirely driven by the consumer and not medical authorities, although many medicos have had to adapt to the market and promote themselves as being “holistic” or “integrative” to cater to consumer needs, especially in the inner city.
Professor Kerryn Phelps, an enthusiastic advocate of alternative therapies, alludes to the field being a response to consumer trends, calling it “the emerging mainstream” in comments to the Medical Journal of Australia. She was responding to widespread criticism from specialist, medical experts who considered it unethical to prescribe such treatments.
According to the National Institute of Complimentary Medicine two in three Australians use complementary medicines each year and spend almost four times as much on the out-of-pocket expenses for these medicines as they do on pharmaceuticals. In most cases, the use of vitamins or supplements is unwarranted in healthy people.
Alternative medicine covers a wide range of disciplines, most of which are based around a view that the human body is not just a material reality. The thinking is that we have an energy that can be guided by external manipulation, much the way that matter and tissues can be redirected by chemicals and radiation in conventional medicine.
This is further underlined by the submission from the advocacy group Complementary Medicines Australia which stated that “the true strength of naturopathy lies in its underlying philosophy, which sees the client as a complete being and the body as a complete system”.
Much of alternative medicine relies on physical practices commonly used in conventional medicine — pill-taking, needle-poking, and the application of heat and pressure, thus giving it the cloak of science.
In the past, the ordinary person may have sought solace and relief from their woes either through the medical profession or via organised religion. Now doctors are seen as too distracted, reliant on five minute medicine and too technically oriented to care about patients’ everyday troubles, while priests for the most part are seen as irrelevant and antiquated. Alternative medicine is in many respects a fusion of both worlds, a middle ground between religion and science.
In an interview to ABC Radio, Monash sociology academic Professor Gary Bouma spoke of how a growing but poorly measured aspect of religious belief are among those who consider themselves spiritual but not as believers of organised religion. On the Census form they were the fastest growing sub category, ticking “not religious” but they did not consider themselves atheist.
The practices that may emerge from such belief systems vary from the use of alternative medicine to the rise of virtuous food embodied through organics to potentially more harmful practices such as the rejection of vaccination.
Award winning American essayist, Eula Biss, writes in her new book “On Immunity” about her fellow mothers as “those blazingly hygienic parents, many of them upper-middle-class, for whom organized personal purity (air filters, water filters, “natural” foods) substitutes for organized religion.”
Biss further writes that acting in a perceived, natural way is tied to broader fears about industrialisation and scientific domination, an insight that perhaps goes to the heart of environmentalist anxieties about modernity:
“Where the word filth once suggested, with its moralist air, the evils of the flesh, the word toxic now condemns the chemical evils of our industrial world.”
We can add medicalised to the same trend to help explain the rising suspicion and hostility towards modern medicine. This faith like belief immune to facts may also help to explain why research showing that hard scientific data presented to anti-vaccination groups can infact harden their views further.
A key advantage of alternative therapies with regards to consumer acceptability is that they are not confined by the limits of testable knowledge, allowing them enormous boundaries for explanation, and leaving patients believing their ailments have real spiritual significance.
But sneering at its supporters is also unhelpful, for its popularity raises genuine questions about traditional authority. The trends illustrates the deficiencies of modern medical practice, particularly its assembly line mode of delivery that leaves many patients empty and unsatisfied. There also needs to be an admission of the power of placebo and that the veneer of omniscience within the medical profession is, in part, charade.
At a political level, however, natural therapies are a symptom of a broader disenchantment with aspects of break neck modernity, from industrialisation to societal fragmentation to the seeming soullessness of the contemporary world. Faced with a feeling of hopelessness in the face of ever widening complexity and a perceived corruption of Nature’s essence, some people resort to actions that give them a feeling of personal purity, be it through buying organic carrots or having their vital energy restored via a naturopath.