$43m for 'alternative' therapies

04:32, May 24 2014
acupuncturist John Xu
NEEDLE THERAPY: Wellington acupuncturist John Xu treats patients for everything from a sore leg to chronic fatigue.

Millions of dollars of public money is being spent on "alternative or complementary" treatments, despite doctors claiming there is little evidence they work.

ACC paid out more than $43 million to osteopaths, chiropractors and acupuncturists last year, with the bill more than doubling in the past decade.

The alternative or complementary medical professionals argue the public is voting with its feet, but the New Zealand Medical Association says patients are often acting on "ropey" information.

"There is a lot of pseudo-science about some of these alternatives," association chairman Mark Peterson said.

While such treatments had their place - particularly when recovering from certain muscular or skeletal injuries - he believed it should be left to doctors to refer patients.

"We are talking about government funding for these things, and some of these self-referrals [from patients] are pretty soft."

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But Paddy McBride, Register of Acupuncturists president, said it was only a matter of time before acupuncture and other complementary therapies were just another part of the public health system.

"There is still a level of resistance," she said. "But increasingly we are getting referrals from GPS, midwives and physios."

Other complementary medicine therapists defended the effectiveness of their treatments, with one suggesting doctors' criticism was more about "protecting turf".

Injured New Zealanders are able to select their own rehabilitation providers, and ACC will help subsidise the treatment equally.

While physiotherapy is still the more popular choice, the use of acupuncturists has surged. In 2004, ACC paid out $4.4m for acupuncture but by last year this had grown to $19.9m.

In 2009, then-ACC minister Nick Smith questioned the ballooning ACC bill for complementary treatments and said their effectiveness would be reviewed.

Since then, the cost has risen another $5m, and ACC said no review ever took place. Yesterday, Smith referred The Dominion Post to current ACC Minister Judith Collins, who did not answer questions about the review.

"The minister expects ACC to fund treatments that deliver the best outcomes for clients," a spokeswoman said.

The Ministry of Health does not fund osteopaths, chiropractors or acupuncturists and recommends district health boards fund only those treatments that are based on "sufficient evidence".

However, several DHBs have dabbled in alternative treatments, and the ministry itself provides about $2m a year for rongoa Maori traditional healing.

Wellington acupuncturist John Xu said the treatment was becoming increasingly popular, and patients would not return if it did not work.

About 40 per cent of his patients were funded by ACC. But acupuncture was not just about injury recovery - it could be used to treat everything from infertility to addiction withdrawal, he said.

"Even doctors and medical specialists come in here for treatment."

An ACC spokesman said acupuncturists, chiropractors and osteopaths were all considered legitimate medical providers who were covered if they improved a claimant's health.

THEY SAY

"We need to fund treatment that is well established. There is a lot of pseudo-science about some of these alternatives."

New Zealand Medical Association chairman Mark Peterson.

"There is a growing acceptance of acupuncture in New Zealand."

Paddy McBride, Register of Acupuncturists president.

"People are starting to understand what we are about and we are reaching a critical mass."

Hayden Thomas, NZ Chiropractors' Association.

"I think a lot of the fear the medical profession has is the unknown. The doctors that have had personal experience with us are a lot more comfortable referring patients."

Leyla Okyay, Osteopaths NZ.

The Dominion Post