The Bright Side of the Federal Government’s Natural Therapies Rebate Changes

Nov 21, 2017

Written by James Rose

The Federal Government’s withdrawal of healthcare subsidies for alternative therapies is certainly not the sort of news practitioners in this space might have hoped for. In an attempt to reduce price hits on private health insurance consumers, the government has sought to cut costs in an area of healthcare that is increasingly supported both in the marketplace and in scientific journals.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, the decision to axe natural therapy rebates in private health fund policies may actually open doors and help the market better understand natural modalities.

Government policy

In the October announcement, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said that the measures were designed to simplify the take up of private healthcare cover in Australia and make it more affordable.

“After consultation with the private health insurance and medical sector, the government has agreed to stop insurers from offering benefits for a range of natural therapies,” he said.

According to figures aired on ABC Radio, some two of three Australians use alternative therapies such as reiki, aromatherapy, kinesiology and iridology. In a nutshell, that’s around 14 million Australians currently using a range of services that are considered ‘alternatives’ to more traditional forms of treatment.

The government commissioned research from the country’s Chief Medical Officer, alongside the Office of National Health and Medical Research, to review a number of natural therapies. The study sought to assess whether they should attract rebates in private health insurance.

The report’s executive summary explained the investigation sought “to ensure that natural therapies are underpinned by a credible evidence base that demonstrates their clinical efficacy, cost-effectiveness and safety and quality.”

Such evidence, said the report, could not be found.

A different approach

However, the report does add that this doesn’t mean these therapies don’t work. It simply suggests “Natural therapies emerged in an environment where there was not a premium on rigorous evidence base.”

That is, many of these therapies were developed in a different environment to peer-reviewed science. In fact, some pre-date these methods of assessment altogether.

As practitioners know far too well, alternative therapies are often more complementary and collaborative than isolated treatments. Medical treatments generally deal directly with existing symptoms, while alternative methods take in broader factors.

It’s also widely acknowledged in the field that the natural therapies studied by government researchers are holistic at their core, and are not necessarily about “curing” a given ailment, but about prevention. They are often best utilised as complementary, not as primary treatments.

Alternative therapies still popular

It appears unlikely that the latest government policy will stop many from seeking out alternatives to their healthcare needs.

The growing problem of prescribed opioid addiction and overdoses, for instance, is driving a trend whereby healthcare consumers are searching for better ways to manage chronic pain.

Chronic lower back pain (LBP), as one example, is the number one cause of disability worldwide, and is the second most common reason to visit a GP in Australia. Its economic impact is immense: In Australia, LBP is the leading cause of early retirement.

In the face of this crisis, medical researchers are urging more holistic solutions.

A recent study by the University of Sydney concluded that many anti-lower back pain medicines were no better than placebos and that medical practitioners should consider alternative therapy options. Similar findings have been recorded in the US.

The upside

The rebates policy may, paradoxically perhaps, provide opportunities to leverage natural therapies more centrally into the overall healthcare landscape.

The onus on those in the industry is to make their case and to pitch to those in the community who are committed to taking preventative action for their own well-being.

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