Maori traditional healers are being funded by the Ministry of Health at a cost of nearly $2 million a year.
They are the only alternative-treatment providers directly receiving public health dollars.
Rongoa is a traditional Maori system of healing that includes rakau rongoa (native herbal remedies), mirimiri (massage) and karakia (prayer), as well as spiritual support.
Deputy director-general of Maori health Teresa Wall said the ministry inherited 14 contracts for rongoa practitioners from the former regional health authorities. It had since contracted two more, with a total cost of $1.9 million a year.
A national body set up last year to oversee the professional development of rongoa services was given establishment funding of $200,000.
Wall said traditional Maori healing could not be viewed from the perspective of Western medicine, where people were prescribed something and expected to get better.
"The mere fact that people use rongoa and go back to the practitioners is testament that the services they are given are contributing to their wellbeing."
Healers were required to report to the ministry quarterly and submit an annual report, but the practitioners and their health outcomes were not reviewed. "It's not unusual to fund on outputs. It's extraordinarily difficult to report on outcomes," Wall said.
Rakau rongoa herbal remedies were not covered by the Medicines Act and the ministry did not require them to be tested as part of its funding policy.
"You would expect the practitioner and relationship with their patient would be the regulatory mechanism. If anything untoward happened, the client wouldn't go back," she said. "We have never had any evidence there's been any serious harm from rongoa."
New Zealand Skeptics chairwoman Vicki Hyde said she was concerned about some claims by Maori healers, such as the use of a kawakawa poultice to help fight lung cancer.
Other traditional Maori remedies had undergone scientific testing and were proven to be effective, she said.
"Obviously, we are concerned about the non-evidential end of things and the fact government spending is going on this," she said. "To put public health money into an area, you really need to make sure that what you are doing is something that works."
Health Cuts Hurt chairwoman Heather Carter supported funding for alternative therapies where they had been properly tested, but said funding only Maori healers was unfair.
"It's an unfortunate reflection of our politically correct society. Funding has to be for other forms of alternative healthcare as well, not just Maori," she said.
Rob McGowan, who has presented courses on identifying and collecting plants for rakau rongoa at Waikato University for 20 years, said there were "huge" amounts of research on some of these plants, "but it still doesn't have acceptance".
He supported government funding for rongoa practitioners, saying they often worked themselves ``to death'' and received little in return as clients traditionally gave koha (gifts or donations) for their services.
There was tension over how much control the ministry should get in return.
Tauranga-based researcher Dr Shaun Holt, author of Natural Remedies That Really Work: A New Zealand guide, said he was not aware of any research on the medicinal effects of rongoa.
"Certainly, if anything is being funded it should be based on good research.
"There's a real need for control because some people claiming to be traditional healers really aren't very knowledgeable.''
A spokesman for Maori medical practitioners' association Te Ora, Dr Rhys Jones, said he supported funding of rongoa as a way of addressing social, cultural and spiritual aspects of health.
He said more could be done to help mainstream doctors and rongoa practitioners work together to improve Maori health.
Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, said that despite Maori largely accepting Western concepts of health and illness, there was significant demand for rongoa.
The renewed interest in Maori healing was due to several factors including; the resurgence of all aspects of Maori culture, a loss of confidence in Western medicine, problems with access to health care for Maori and the perceived lack of a spiritual dimension in Western health services.
Health Minister Tony Ryall said the rongoa contracts were "established over some time''.
"I have not been fully briefed on any of the individual programmes, so I cannot comment any further,'' he said.
Late last year, Environmental Science and Research was given funding to explore how to evaluate traditional Maori healing practices, including rongoa, and identify "appropriate outcome measures''.
- The Press