After a ground-breaking career spanning three decades, Professor Alan Bensoussan, one of Australia's most influential integrative medicine researchers, has decided to step down from the directorship of NICM Health Research Institute he helped establish in 2008.
Alan Bensoussan applauds Western Sydney University's long support for integrative medicine
Bensoussan is one of the nation's torch-bearers of complementary medicine, and, in particular, traditional Chinese medicine. In Australia, he has helped propel the study, research and practice of complementary medicine into the mainstream.
His research projects together with his colleagues have helped us understand which complementary therapies work effectively, and which don't.
"It's been a long, hard slog," says Bensoussan, who has authored over 200 scientific papers and two books.
"But it's been worth it. When I started, complementary medicine wasn't well regarded in Australia. Many people saw it as a collection of quackeries better left to counter-culture followers.
"But, through our work, we've shown that complementary therapies have an important role to play in a modern medical system."
Early days – a new exploration of old frontiers
Bensoussan's career journey began after completing a degree in physics and applied maths. He was accepted into medicine but opted for a different path.
"I was always drawn to the less conventional. The concept of looking at health through a different lens, including Chinese medicine and acupuncture, was enticing. I read about traditional Chinese medical theories and realised how divorced conventional medicine had become from our living planet and the influence of seasons, circadian biological rhythms, and diets.
"Coming from a French North African culture gave me the courage to look at things a little differently. I was prepared to be an outsider and to take a more challenging road to do something novel.
"It's not been easy, but it was never likely to be," he says, hinting at the buffeting the sector has taken from sceptics of complementary medicine over the years.
Bensoussan graduated in the early 1980s in Chinese medicine and worked for ten years in private practice, while also spending time to study in China.
But his desire to integrate his knowledge into the health system was his lifelong passion, and so began his next step – a move into teaching and research at Western Sydney University, in 1989.
"What drove me then – and still drives me today – was a desire to identify the most valuable parts of traditional Chinese medical treatments, based on the best available evidence, and bring those practices into modern integrative medicine," he says.
"I saw that there could be a real social benefit."
NICM Health Research Institute
In 1995, Bensoussan was promoted to head the Research Unit for Complementary Medicine and, later, the Chinese Medicine Unit, where he established the undergraduate Chinese medicine Bachelor Degree program and developed and ran Australia's first Master's programs in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine.
But his critical academic and strategic achievement was to found Western Sydney University's NICM Health Research Institute in 2008 (formally the National Institute of Complementary Medicine).
Under Bensoussan's stewardship, NICM Health Research Institute has grown to become Australia's leader in integrative and complementary medicine research and policy. It is globally recognised for its world-class research and innovations as an ERA 5 Institute. [Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) is Australia's national research evaluation framework. NICM has received the top ranking of 5 consistently since 2012.] The Institute's research includes clinical trials, laboratory testing and policy work. Today it comprises over 70 staff and students.
Funded by the Commonwealth Government and NSW Government, NICM Health Research Institute plays a key national role in ensuring Australians have access to reliable evidence on complementary medicines and treatments in wide use. The establishment of NICM Health Research Institute has also resonated strongly with many doctors, clinicians, philanthropists and industry partners who have sought active involvement and provided significant philanthropic support.
Influence on government policy and regulation
Bensoussan has had a significant impact on national and international government policies relating to complementary medicine, industry engagement, approaches to research and practice guidelines.
In 1995, he was commissioned by the Victorian, NSW and Queensland health departments to undertake the first comprehensive review of complementary medicine. "It was a massive piece of work and led to the statutory regulation of Chinese medicine practitioners and acupuncturists, mandating minimum levels of education and clinical practice standards," Bensoussan says.
In 2012, his Government report on the practice of traditional Chinese medicine led to the national regulation of Chinese medicine practitioners – making Australia the first western nation to do so. His work led the World Health Organization to examine ways to harmonise regulatory frameworks in the Western Pacific.
He has also served as a consultant to the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in developing innovative approaches to regulatory reform, to make clinically proven complementary medicines available to consumers.
Looking back over his career, Bensoussan applauds Western Sydney University's long support for integrative medicine. "Our collaboration is a superb reflection of executive support for our vision," he says. "It's the only public university in the West that I know of that offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Chinese medicine alongside a medical school."
Looking ahead, he says he is excited about the upcoming Government reviews of natural therapies (for health insurance rebates).
He also sees numerous opportunities for NICM Health Research Institute, particularly as it carries out further research work in the synergistic behaviour of herbal compounds, the microbiome, epigenetics and nanotechnology.
Bensoussan would also like to see considerably more research into the food–drug interface, including nutritional supplements, fish oils, probiotics, and herbal medicines; as well as research into the therapeutic value, safety and effectiveness of medical cannabis.
"I wish I had two more decades to be a very active part of these phenomenal growth opportunities," he says. "But, while NICM Health Research Institute's been my baby for a long time, I'm happy to say that it continues in excellent hands. All of our researchers are incredibly talented, and all our achievements to date have been a result of the determination, support and collaboration of our whole team and external partners."
Bensoussan will happily continue to serve NICM Health Research Institute and Western Sydney University in a part-time capacity and consult with industry.