The highly politicized Australian natural medicine scene had a $1.3-million dollop of additional controversy stirred into the mix late May. Blackmores, the natural products giant that dominates that market, announced the Maurice Blackmores Chair of Integrative Medicine at the University of Sydney. The grant was made through the Blackmores Institute through Blackmores’ current CEO, Marcus Blackmore (pictured) in the name of his father, the company’s founder.
Bruce Robinson, MD, the dean of the medical school at University of Sydney reportedly approached Blackmores to create the relationship. He anticipates that under the grant, over 5 years, “the Chair will undertake high quality, basic and clinical research into complementary and integrative medicines, and look to develop education programs which mean young doctors will graduate knowing what complementary medicines can and can’t achieve, and how they interact with other treatments.” Blackmore hopes the donation will “contribute towards a holistic approach in medical practice that combines modern western medicine with established and proven practices in the area of integrative medicine.”
The move has sparked debate over corporate gifts. An academic group slammed the move. Supporters have lauded the move. One commentator suggest the new position might create value. A related story speaks to the difference between “registered” and “listed” products, complaining that no one honors the distinction between those with research and those without. Meantime, Australian antagonists to the role of alternatives in their country (see cartoon), where 4 out of 5 people use them, continue to question the practices, while yet providing short lists of some with evidence and others without.
Commentary for Jon Wardle, ND, MPH: The Global Integrator contacted Australian academic in integrative public health, Jon Wardle, ND, MPH (pictured), for perspective. Wardle is an author, organizer and health services researcher. He provided some exceptional views: “What is often lost in the controversy around this development is that the Sydney School of Medicine approached the Blackmores Institute, rather than another way around. This is a story about one of Australia’s pre-eminent medical schools seeing the need and wanting to get further involved in integrative medicine, not a story about industry wanting to direct a medical school one way or the other.”
He then focused in on the meaning of this move, globally, for the naturopathic medical movement: “This is probably the first conventional medical school chair named after a naturopathic physician anywhere in the world. That would have been unthinkable, even 10 years ago. It shows great commitment by Sydney to exploring integrative medicine in a truly interdisciplinary way, rather than the cherry-picking we often see at some other medical institutes.”
Finally, Wardle spoke to the challenging context for research in the polarized Australian environment: “Detractors can’t have it both ways. They call for more independent research and simultaneously criticise industry for not funding research. Again and again it’s been demonstrated that government grants won’t pay for this research, but detractors cry foul when industry steps up. Whilst funding has come from an industry partner (Blackmores), there do appear to have been great pains to make the Chair independent – far more so than any other sponsored chair at Sydney University (pictured), including several others in the medical school. If detractors don’t like this, I suggest that they focus their energy on getting the National Health and Medical Research Council to fund more integrative medicine research. The success rate for NHMRC grants in Australia is below 10%, and even though it forms nearly half of the healthcare sector, integrative medicine makes up less than one half of one percent of all NHMRC grants. There is a plethora of independent researchers willing and able to apply the rigour and critical approach that detractors think will be missing from this Chair, but no-one will fund them. I suggest detractors focus their attention on addressing the current barriers to integrative medicine research, rather than criticising those that are trying to get it done.”
Comment: It is interesting that in the nature of the polarization that continues to exist in many quarters related to natural medicine, one is indeed damned if you do, damned if you don’t. In the United States, for instance, the same people who complain of a lack of science behind natural medicine will, in the next breath, seek to shut down the National Institutes of Health center that was created to examine these therapies and practices. So in Australia, a time-honored method for funding research – the funding of a chair – is criticized at its source. Dean Robinson took on the critics head-on: “Blackmores Institute is an appropriate supporter of this chair just as BlueScope steel would be in supporting the Faculty of Engineering.” Of course, a part of the antagonism may be a reasonable instinct given than much in the history of medicine’s long, and deeply intertwined relationship with industry sponsorship may rightfully be called a time-dishonored practice. As one who has spent parts of my life looking for research funding to examine the value of integrative practices, I awkwardly admit that I believe in this case what may be good for the goose, is not right for the gander. One can legitimately argue for more industry support for natural products research and an exit from medical school funding by Big Pharma. Vigilance is key, in any case, and heightened, anytime when industry is nearby.