Australian cancer services urged to update their complementary medicine policies

According to research published 12 August 2020 by the Medical Journal of Australia, looking at ‘hospital policies on complementary medicine’, 60% of patients starting chemotherapy and 47% of those receiving radiotherapy, also use complementary medicine, but a “concerning” number of hospital cancer services don’t have policies about the use of these therapies.

The researchers, led by Adjunct Associate Professor Jennifer Hunter, from the NICM Health Research Institute at Western Sydney University, also found that the use of complementary medicines is often not discussed with the medical team, which may increase the risk of interactions and other undesirable health effects of treatment.

As part of the study, the researchers surveyed Australian public and private hospitals with dedicated cancer services to assess various aspects of cancer service coverage, particularly complementary medicine services.

The results of the 52-item electronic survey revealed that chemotherapy was provided by 207 (79%) of the 262 participating cancer services and, supportive and allied health care by 196 (75%), including 66 (25%) that provided at least one type of complementary medicine service.

Palliative care was provided by 168 (64%) hospitals, surgery by 143 (55%) and radiotherapy by 143 (34%).

“Ninety-three responding hospitals (36%) could not provide responses to one or more of the five policy-related survey questions,” the authors report.

“Only 89 respondents (34%) were aware of the Council of Australian Therapeutic Advisory Groups (CATAG) position statement on complementary medicines, and only 31 of these respondents (35%) thought that their hospital policies were aligned with this statement.

“A substantial proportion of hospitals did not have policies regarding complementary medicine practitioners or patient-initiated complementary medicine use,” the authors found.

“Most hospitals (229, 87%) had policies for documenting complementary medicines. Seventy-six (33%) documented all complementary medicines (including patient-initiated products) on medication charts, 88 (38%) documented only complementary medicines approved by medical staff, and 48 (21%) documented complementary medicine use only in the clinical history.

“The policy at 17 hospitals (6%) was that complementary medicines were never permitted, despite CATAG advice.”

The study authors call for “consistent policies across Australian hospitals, and staff and patient awareness of these policies” because of the “widespread use of complementary medicine”.

“Consistent policies across Australian hospitals, and staff and patient awareness of these policies, are important because of the widespread use of complementary medicine.

“Stronger leadership is needed from peak bodies, such as the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care and CATAG, to encourage Australian cancer services and hospitals to update or review their complementary medicine policies,” they conclude.

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