The Regulation of the Complementary Health Sector: General Public’s Knowledge of Complementary MedicineRelated Quality Assurance and Consumer Protection

Document Type : Original Article


1 Faculty of Health, University of Technology Sydney, Sydney, NSW, Australia

2 Sydney Law School, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW, Australia

3 Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Monash University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia


Complementary medicine (CM) use is a ubiquitous aspect of an increasingly consumer- driven model of healthcare delivery and plays an increasingly prominent role in the Australian health sector. Yet there is limited empirical research investigating the quality and integrity of protections for consumers in Australia. The aim of this study is to help address this gap in knowledge by exploring how members of the public engage with protection mechanisms related to CM use.

This study utilised a cross-sectional online survey to recruit a sample of 1132 Australian adults aged 18 and over. Purposive convenience sampling was used to recruit participants from an existing database of Australian adults who had expressed interest in participating in research.
The majority of the participants (64.0%) had visited a CM practitioner in their lifetime. However, a minority of participants (36.9%) indicated they would feel confident in knowing where to complain if something went wrong with the treatment they received from a CM practitioner. Most participants (74.7%) had used a CM product in their lifetime. Specifically, 32.3% had ‘ever’ used an herbal product and 69.9% had ‘ever’ used a nutritional supplement. However, a minority of participants (32.7%) indicated they would feel confident knowing where to complain if something went wrong with a herbal or nutritional supplement they used. Most participants indicated a lack of knowledge about how CM practitioners and CM products are regulated in Australia.
The findings of this study clearly highlight a concerning lack of knowledge by CM patients and consumers regarding the regulation of CM in Australia. From a policy perspective, it is necessary to seek proactive approaches that target complaint-related knowledge of the CM patients and consumers through education and advocacy efforts.


  1. Adams J, Andrews G, Barnes J, Broom A, Magin P. Traditional, Complementary and Integrative Medicine: An International Reader. London: Palgrave Macmillan; 2012.
  2. Steel A, McIntyre E, Harnett J, et al. Complementary medicine use in the Australian population: results of a nationally-representative cross-sectional survey. Sci Rep. 2018;8(1):17325. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-35508-y
  3. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Health Expenditure Australia 2012-13: Analysis by Sector. Health and welfare expenditure series no. 53. Canberra: AIHW; 2014.
  4. Adams J, Sommers E, Robinson N. Public health and health services research in integrative medicine: an emerging, essential focus. Eur J Integr Med. 2013;5(1):1-3. doi:10.1016/j.eujim.2012.11.004
  5. Wardle J, Adams J, Magalhães RJ, Sibbritt D. Distribution of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) providers in rural New South Wales, Australia: a step towards explaining high CAM use in rural health? Aust J Rural Health. 2011;19(4):197-204. doi:10.1111/j.1440-1584.2011.01200.x
  6. Xue CC, Zhang AL, Lin V, Da Costa C, Story DF. Complementary and alternative medicine use in Australia: a national population-based survey. J Altern Complement Med. 2007;13(6):643-650. doi:10.1089/acm.2006.6355
  7. Wardle J, Adams J. Indirect and non-health risks associated with complementary and alternative medicine use: an integrative review. Eur J Integr Med. 2014;6(4):409-422. doi:10.1016/j.eujim.2014.01.001
  8. Byard RW, Musgrave I, Maker G, Bunce M. What risks do herbal products pose to the Australian community? Med J Aust. 2017;206(2):86-90. doi:10.5694/mja16.00614
  9. Wardle J. Complementary health law. In: Freckelton I, Petersen K, eds. Tensions and Traumas in Health Law. Sydney: Federation Press; 2017:609-613.
  10. Wardle J, Weir M, Marshall B, Archer E. Regulatory and legislative protections for consumers in complementary medicine: lessons from Australian policy and legal developments. Eur J Integr Med. 2014;6(4):423-433. doi:10.1016/j.eujim.2014.03.008
  11. Sibbritt D, Millbank J, Stuhmcke A, Kaye M, Karpin I, Wardle J. The failure of contemporary law and regulation to keep pace with growing complementary medicine (CM) use: the significance of examining ‘hidden’gaps in Australia's current regulatory and legislative infrastructure. Adv Integr Med. 2016;3(2):43-44. doi:10.1016/j.aimed.2016.11.002
  12. World Health Organization (‎WHO)‎. WHO Global Report on Traditional and Complementary Medicine 2019. WHO; 2019.
  13. Reid R, Steel A, Wardle J, Trubody A, Adams J. Complementary medicine use by the Australian population: a critical mixed studies systematic review of utilisation, perceptions and factors associated with use. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2016;16:176. doi:10.1186/s12906-016-1143-8
  14. What's on my medicine label? Therapeutic Goods Administration Website. Accessed November 1, 2019.
  15. Wessel M, Lynøe N, Juth N, Helgesson G. The tip of an iceberg? a cross-sectional study of the general public's experiences of reporting healthcare complaints in Stockholm, Sweden. BMJ Open. 2012;2(1):e000489. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2011-000489
  16. Doron I, Gal I, Shavit M, Weisberg-Yosub P. Unheard voices: complaint patterns of older persons in the health care system. Eur J Ageing. 2011;8(1):63-71. doi:10.1007/s10433-011-0177-5
  17. Harvey KJ, Korczak VS, Marron LJ, Newgreen DB. Commercialism, choice and consumer protection: regulation of complementary medicines in Australia. Med J Aust. 2008;188(1):21-25. doi:10.5694/j.1326-5377.2008.tb01905.x
  18. Blendon RJ, DesRoches CM, Benson JM, Brodie M, Altman DE. Americans' views on the use and regulation of dietary supplements. Arch Intern Med. 2001;161(6):805-810. doi:10.1001/archinte.161.6.805
  19. Myers SP, Cheras PA. The other side of the coin: safety of complementary and alternative medicine. Med J Aust. 2004;181(4):222-225. 
  20. Millbank J, Kaye M, Stuhmcke A, Sibbritt D, Karpin I, Wardle J. Complementary health practitioners disciplined for misconduct in Australia 2010-2016. J Law Med. 2017;24(4):788-802.
  21. Sibbritt D, Kaye M, Millbank J, Stuhmcke A, Wardle J, Karpin I. How are complementary health professions regulated in Australia? an examination of complementary health professions in the national registration and accreditation scheme. Complement Ther Med. 2018;37:6-12. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2017.12.012
Volume 11, Issue 8
August 2022
Pages 1482-1488
  • Receive Date: 17 February 2020
  • Revise Date: 29 April 2021
  • Accept Date: 30 April 2021
  • First Publish Date: 09 June 2021