The public needs more information to understand how and when to use medical treatments without formal scientific backing. 

Novak Djokovic likes Melbourne, and not just for the tennis. At a clinic just minutes from where he has won the Australian Open six times, Djokovic gets a treatment he is convinced speeds his recovery between matches. He gets into a capsule resembling a mini submarine and spends time breathing 100% oxygen at high pressure.

Known as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, it is a proven treatment for decompression sickness and carbon-monoxide poisoning. Some Complementary and Alternative medicine (CAM) clinics also offer it for sporting injuries. Indeed, research published in January found it reduces inflammation and accelerates muscle repair – but the study was in rats and a long way from showing it works in humans.

Djokovic is one of millions who embrace CAM despite, in many cases, a lack of scientific proof. That trend raises deep questions about the nature of evidence and people’s right to choose in an era of personal autonomy. It is also whipping up a storm of controversy in Australia.

Parliament recently passed into law a list of what CAM treatments can claim to do and the evidence needed to back that up. It has some perplexing items. You can say, for example, that a treatment “moistens dryness” in the “triple burner”, an area between the pelvis and neck in Traditional and Chinese Medicine (TCM). The evidence is “tradition of use” over a period of more than three generations or 75 years.

The list has lobby group Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM) in a lather. They argue it promotes pseudoscience and wrongly gives traditional use equal weight to scientific evidence, potentially misleading consumers and causing them to forego valid treatments. FSM don’t deny traditional medicine can be valuable – the malaria treatment artemesinin, for example, comes from a traditional Chinese remedy based on the wormwood bush. Artemisinin was, however, proven effective in clinical trials, the scientific gold standard.

The core criticism of “traditional evidence” is that it is the accumulation of individual experience, leaving it unclear if a remedy actually worked, if it caused a placebo response, or if the illness simply ran its course. Advocates of TCM, though, complain of a double standard when single-case reports are accepted in biomedical journals while individual experience with alternative therapies is dismissed.

Read the full article in Cosmos magazine here