According to the Courier Mail, an Australian news website, more than 200,000 practitioners work in unregistered health fields Australia-wide and complementary medicines generate almost $2 billion a year, but little can be done when treatments go wrong.

In a assessment of consumer-protection measures, Queensland’s health watchdog admitted it was powerless to respond to the misconduct of alternative healers and other unregistered practitioners.

“The status quo does not sufficiently protect consumers from (the) risk of harm from unregistered health practitioners,” the Health Quality and Complaints Commission said in a confidential paper obtained by The Sunday Mail.

Naturopathy, faith and spiritual healing, Chinese medicine, homeopathy, and massage are among the unregulated fields in Queensland, with the medical community warning of a health “time bomb”.

In Australia, there “is a public health issue waiting to explode,” said UQ School of Population Health researcher Jon Wardle, who has found there are now more alternative medical practitioners than doctors in some areas of the country. “For half the healthcare sector to be non-regulated is completely inappropriate it is the black market of health.”

The Sunday Mail reported that there have been 119 complaints about alternative practitioners to the state’s health watchdog in the past three years. Allegations of assault, rough and painful treatment, illegal practices, medication errors and inappropriate treatment are among the complaints. In one example, an acupuncturist caused a collapsed lung.

Here’s the bad news: the complaints commission is unable to discipline offenders and can only forward cases to other agencies for action under general consumer and criminal laws.

A huge question mark hangs over the safety of complementary medicines when it was revealed that nine out of 10 products were not meeting regulatory standards. The Auditor-General’s report found the 10,000 complementary medicines registered with the Therapeutic Goods Administration did not have to be tested for safety nor efficacy.

The bottom line, in Australia: medical doctors are formally regulated and alternative medicine practitioners are not. Ultimately, it’s the consumer who will suffer the most. Future patients – don’t assume that “because it’s natural, it’s safe”.