Editorial: Monitoring needed for traditional healing

There is a place for alternative therapies and traditional healing in the public health system. Despite massive advances in the diagnosis and treatment of disease in the past century, medical science does not have all the answers, and never will.

Many traditional practices, such as acupuncture, have been proven to be just as effective as costly drugs and complicated surgery.

However, in order for taxpayers to have confidence that the money that goes towards funding alternative and traditional healing is being put to good use, the services being offered and those providing them must be robustly monitored and evaluated. At a time of budget constraints, every cent that goes into public services must be properly accounted for.

When it comes to the nearly $2 million the Ministry of Health spends each year on traditional Maori healing, Rongoa Maori, that monitoring and evaluation is woefully lacking.

Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia knows how much cash goes to the 15 providers her ministry presently funds, and she knows how many "client contacts" they make each year. But she has no idea how that money is being spent. The ministry does not know how many individual patients are treated each year, what they are being treated for and whether or not they are getting any benefit.

The complete lack of monitoring means it is impossible to say whether the money provided to Rongoa services has been spent as intended. The ministry also keeps no records of other agencies and entities that fund providers, increasing the risk of double-dipping.

Te Kahui Rongoa Trust was set up in December 2011 to finally bring some governance to providers, but more than a year later is yet to start monitoring them. That work must begin as soon as possible.

Of course, it is not always easy to assess traditional healing methods such as Rongoa. It brings a specifically Maori perspective to health that is completely different to Western medicine's approach, using herbal remedies, massage, prayer and other therapies to promote wellbeing as opposed to focusing on ill-health and possible medical interventions.

As a result, Rongoa will often be difficult to measure in terms of success or failure. A terminal cancer patient, for example, might find it infinitely more comforting to spend their final days with a Rongoa practitioner who ministers to their spiritual and cultural needs rather than in a hospice surrounded by strangers focused solely on the physical. So, too, a mental health patient might benefit far more from being reconnected with their cultural roots than being pumped full of anti-depressants.

But that does not give Mrs Turia and the Ministry of Health licence to hand over millions of dollars of public money, no questions asked. At the very least, the ministry should be pushing the trust to gather information on the number of individual patients being seen and insisting on some evidence that the services being funded are benefiting those receiving them.