27 December, 2018

End of year thought piece – an industry whose time has come

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The team at YHYC enjoyed reading the end-of-year thought piece written by Complementary Medicines Australia (CMA) President, Paul Mannion, so much, in fact, that we obtained Paul’s permission to share an abridged version here.

“I was honoured a couple of months ago when the board of CMA asked me to take on the presidency of the organisation, and I look forward to the opportunity to help guide the industry association through some interesting times ahead. Having had a few weeks now to think about the role, I thought it would be worthwhile to express some personal views about the future of CMA and our sector.

So what do we call the industry we are all part of? Vitamins & dietary supplements (VDS), supplements, complementary medicines, health foods? I prefer the term ‘natural medicines’ to cover our broad church. My history with the natural medicine business goes back to the very early 90’s, when I was studying naturopathy at Nature Care College in Sydney. I was a rugby league-playing, beer drinking loud mouth from the Western Suburbs, and didn’t immediately fit the mould at the time of a naturopathy student, who were overwhelmingly female, vegetarian and more likely to spend their evenings meditating than going to the pub. I did, however, feel a real affinity for the sense of quiet rebellion that was taking place, the understanding that modern medicine did not have solutions for the most important emerging health issues of our time, and that a new paradigm was going to be needed if we were to solve things like diabetes, dementia, autoimmunity and depression. It was very clear to me that people wanted to have more say in their health care and were starting to understand that they couldn’t medicate their way out of a problem they had eaten their way into.

What was challenging almost 30 years ago, though, was the lack of awareness of the industry and the ingredients we worked with. I can’t count the number of BBQ conversations that quickly turned to “So you’re a witch doctor?”. Similarly, back then the only place you could buy supplements were health foods stores, and these were a small part of their business, which was largely dispensing bulk quantities of nuts, wheat germ, brewers yeast and other health foods. Pharmacies and grocery stores (apart from a couple of isolated products), had yet to discover the benefits of selling supplements. What was also remarkable was the passion and dedication that the early retailers had for the industry – they were well educated and really took the time to understand their customers and their health issues. In fact, one of the key pieces of feedback customers and patients would provide over and again is their deep appreciation at the sense of being heard, of being listened to and people taking the time to really try and understand what was happening, before trying to recommend a solution.

So slowly, customer by customer, patient by patient, BBQ by BBQ, people started to hear about, experience and then become advocates for the natural medicine industry. The stories were always the same – a strange health condition which the doctor said was untreatable, an encounter with someone providing advice that at first seemed very strange – (change your diet, change your lifestyle, manage your stress, detoxify your body, heal your gut), and a slow but remarkable turnaround in health and symptoms. The sector that we are part of today was built on 3 major platforms:

  1. Taking the time to understand the individual

  2. A holistic approach – supplements plus diet, lifestyle and mental wellbeing

  3. Products that used high quality ingredients and worked

It was also built off the vision and courage of the early pioneers who were willing to deal with the inevitable criticism from people who were threatened by or didn’t understand this new paradigm. People like Jeff Bland, who has lead the education of health care professionals for the last 40 years, Leon and Michael Brosnan and Vaughan Bullivant who were early pioneers that built strong brands and customer loyalty, and Maurice and Marcus Blackmore who have strongly supported the industry over many years, from the birth of the industry association, support for the National Institute for Complementary Medicine and very recently the creation of a National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine at Southern Cross University.

The industry that we are all part of today is a very different place than it was in the early days. We are seeing an unprecedented level of research supporting and explaining the scientific basis of our traditional medicines. If you have been around long enough to remember the scorn that was poured on people who discussed the term ‘leaky gut’ it is somewhat amusing to now see the enthusiasm with which the medical and scientific community have adopted the emerging arena of microbiome medicine, and the term ‘intestinal permeability’, which now has over 14,000 references in the medical literature.

One of the best things that our industry can do to counter the negativity of the sceptics is to invest in science. Good quality science that supports the products and claims we make about them is the single best tool we have to counter the critics. We are incredibly fortunate that we have a number of world class institutions researching natural medicine in Australia, most notably NICM Health Research Institute. Under the leadership of Professor Alan Bensoussan, in their new fully renovated site in the Westmead Medical Precinct, we have a truly world class teaching and research facility. It is up to all of us to get behind this initiative and support the foresight of the University of Western Sydney by commissioning research through NICM and building an evidence base that we can all be very proud of. Marcus Blackmore, The Jacka Foundation and others have been significant supporters of NICM recently but I recall Marcus passionately stating that without broad industry support, these efforts will not achieve anywhere near the impact they could otherwise do.

We are in many ways an industry whose time has come. We are in the middle of a number of large forces which currently are reshaping health care – the rise of the individual wanting to take charge of their health, the ubiquity of personal health and activity monitors that are driving health awareness and personalisation, and the desire for purity and protection from environmental challenges. We are also witnessing a substantial transformation in the nature of disease burden, from acute, largely self-limiting issues, to chronic, long term health concerns such as diabetes, obesity and dementia.

The natural medicine industry sits right at the intersection of these macro trends and is uniquely placed to tackle some of these issues, particularly those of chronic diseases, which are ultimately related to what people eat and how they live. There are no pill-for-an-ill solutions here and real progress will come from developing strategies that work in harmony with the body, and helping people to modify their diet and lifestyle over time.

I am very conscious that we all are standing on the shoulders of some remarkable pioneers who have followed their vision of a better and more holistic health care system. It is up to us to stay true to that vision by producing world class products that deserve the reputation they have around the world, and provide the health benefits that people are seeking. In addition, we can leave the industry a better place for the future by investing now in research that will build a platform of credibility and acceptance for years to come.

We are all nearing the end of a very busy year. Over the festive season while you are enjoying some time with your friends and family and (if you are anything like me) sitting in the pool with a cold beer, take a few minutes to reflect on what we have all collectively as an industry and a community of natural medicine believers achieved. Also maybe spend a minute or two reflecting on the needs and desires of the millions of consumers who have placed their trust in us this year, and all going well, will continue to in the years ahead.”


Paul Mannion

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