Posted by: Chris Cole | March 20, 2009

Why am I paying for idiots to support charlatans?

Along with a lot of other Australians, I have just received a not-unexpected letter from my private health insurance company (MBF in my case) advising me that my premiums are increasing by 7.69 % starting from April 1st (and sadly, I suspect it will not be a joke). Being a young, pretty healthy guy, I have very little need of private health insurance. Being a doctor, I have even less need of it; it’s perhaps not a widely known fact, but we medicos are a little incestuous and as a standard courtesy we don’t charge each other for medical services (this of course does not extend to charges from the hospital itself). The only circumstances where private health insurance would be useful to me is if I have elective surgery done in a private hospital (and need to pay the hospital’s fees, not the doctor’s), or if we decide to have a baby. If I am seriously injured or critically ill, I will be going to a public hospital as a public patient; the former ensures a higher overall level of care, and the latter ensures I won’t have a huge co-payment to make because private health insurance pays nowhere near enough, especially for complex or prolonged admissions to hospital. No, I’m afraid the main reason I maintain private health insurance is purely mercenary; the insurance premiums cost me less than the Medicare levy surcharge would add to my tax each year. Even if I never use it, it’s cheaper to pay MBF for hospital cover than it is to pay the tax penalty for not having health insurance.

C’est la vie. However… I also pay for extras cover, which partially pays for things like dentistry, optometry, physiotherapy, etc. And some of these services I do, in fact, need and use (e.g. going to the dentist). On perusal of the policy summary that arrived with my notice of a price hike, however, I note that MBF extras insurance also covers chiropractic, acupuncture, naturopathy, aromatherapy, Bowen therapy, Feldenkrais, herbalists, homeopathy, iridology, kinesiology, and reflexology, among others. MBF will happily pay up to $200 a year in benefits for these “therapies”. This is more than they will pay per year for optometry and eyeglasses or contact lenses. It is the same amount allowed per year for physiotherapy services. It is twice as much as they will pay for nicotine replacement treatment to help people quit smoking.

Why should I care? Because by virtue of MBF’s financially driven need to cater to the lowest common denominator of the gullible masses, I am paying for ignorant and/or irrational people to go to willfully dishonest and/or equally ignorant providers of these fraudulent “health services”. Along with everybody else who has extras cover with MBF (and most likely any other major health insurer in Australia), I am indirectly paying money to these charlatans, simply because a large chunk of the public is too poorly educated to recognise bullshit when they see it, and because to stay in business MBF need to attract as much of population as they can, including the idiots. This is much like the situation politicians find themselves in; in order to get elected, their statements and policies must cater for and appeal to the ignorant, biased and irrational amongst the population, as well as everyone else.

In a democracy, everybody’s voice has equal merit, and this is (for many reasons and despite certain drawbacks) rightly so. The advancement of the body of medical knowledge, however, proceeds by something called the scientific method. It is not a democratic process. It is a logical one. It is the process that has produced the technology that allows us to send space probes to other planets, to fly to another country, to power and provide water to our homes, to read this very article on the internet, and to understand the true causes of illness and disease, and provide treatments for them that actually work. Modern medicine does not advocate particular drugs, operations or other treatments because an ancient book says so, or because that’s the way they did it when grandpa was a lad. We use drugs and procedures that have been demonstrated, time and time again, to work. Many supporters of so-called complementary therapies seem to view science as some part of a conspiratorial establishment, suppressing the quest for knowledge that lies outside the mainstream. The irony is that nothing could be further from the truth. Scientific progress is made by seeking out the mysteries, the things we don’t understand, asking specific questions about those things, and testing our ideas about them, in order to provide answers to those questions and both broaden and deepen our understanding of the way the world works.

So, if someone comes up with the idea of say, homeopathy and asserts that it works, that’s fine. Cool. Bring it on! There is so much human suffering that we cannot treat very effectively, we are always on the lookout for new ways of helping people. The more the merrier. However, unfortunately for the many purveyors of snake oil out there, we do have one teensy weensy little stipulation. A condition that must be met, if you want the big bad medical establishment to take you seriously, and treat your ideas with any sort of respect. You have to actually prove that it works. This means providing actual, real, objective and independently verifiable evidence that it works. No, heart-warming anecdotes about one brave little boy’s miraculous improvement doesn’t count. Petitions from hundreds of people testifying that it’s the best thing that ever happened to them don’t count either. There are standards of scientific evidence. They’re pretty simple and very straightforward. Meeting them can be tricky, depending on the question you’re asking, and what you’re trying to demonstrate, but understanding the type of evidence required is not hard. We can, and do, teach it to primary school children.

Every single drug, operation or other intervention employed by medical professionals in Australia has met these requirements. It is simply illegal to sell a drug if it cannot be proven conclusively to do whatever it is the manufacturer claims it can do. Individual doctors may be biased for or against particular treatments, often with good reason though sometimes not, but as a whole, the medical profession will (and does) accept, incorporate and use any and all methods that are properly demonstrated to work.

There is no such thing as alternative or complementary medicine. There is simply medicine, and the rest which does not work.

I see no reason why I should continue to subsidise the scientific illiteracy of the masses and line the pockets of the liars and thieves who exploit them. Do you?



  1. Well, this month the NHMRC released their report on homeopathy – in short, no evidence for its effectiveness.

    No surprises.

    But in same month, health premiums went up. Isnt it time to write to your health fund and ask WHY you are paying for unproven therapy….not for decent cover.

    Medicos need to stand up and be counted.

    Blogged this over on today

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