Bringing the old into the new: the integration of traditional health knowledge perspectives into modern health law

Dr Jon Wardle1

1University Of Technology Sydney, Ultimo, Australia

International regulatory and legislative developments are increasingly acknowledging traditional health knowledge – evidence based not on scientific methods but on longstanding traditions of use. For example: the World Intellectual Property Organization has developed an extensive body of work promoting recognition of the validity of traditional knowledge globally, including explicit work on traditional health; UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression extends its recommendations to traditional health approaches; Traditional medicine terminology is now incorporated into the most recent  International Classification of Diseases update; and the World Health Organization has developed a raft of recommendations that member states incorporate traditional medical knowledge into healthcare delivery and into regulatory systems. Case law in Australia and internationally increasingly acknowledges traditional health knowledge: traditional health knowledge can be sufficient in-and-of itself in some instances and need not be assessed in accordance with medical standards; and breaching traditional medicine norms has been held to be the same as misrepresenting scientific health claims. These developments bring opportunities for the recognition of rich healing traditions into modern regulatory and legal settings, but implementation can often be controversial, as recent controversy around inclusion of approved traditional claims in Australian therapeutic goods legislation reforms demonstrates. Increased legal and regulatory recognition of traditional health knowledge also brings unique challenges – such as lack of evidence standards for traditional use, or lack of protection for intellectual property owners against misappropriation of their traditional health knowledge. This presentation examines national and international developments in legal and regulatory mechanisms acknowledging traditional health knowledge, and examines their effectiveness at upholding their stated aims of improving standards and protecting the public. This presentation also discusses safeguard mechanisms required to ensure that increased incorporation and recognition of traditional health knowledge does not result in more established forms of evidence becoming compromised.


Jon Wardle is a Senior Lecturer and NHMRC Research Fellow in Public Health at the Faculty of Health, University of Technology Sydney. Jon is also Head of the Regulatory, Policy and Legislative Stream at the Australian Research Centre in Complementary and Integrative Medicine. Jon has clinical backgrounds in nursing and naturopathy, and postgraduate qualifications in public health, and health and medical law. Jon’s research interests focus on the impact of unconventional, unorthodox and unproven health care approaches on global health care systems, and the regulatory, legislative and policy protections that protect the public in this area.

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The Australasian Association of Bioethics and Health Law (AABHL) was formed in 2009.

It encourages open discussion and debate on a range of bioethical issues, providing a place where people can ask difficult questions about ideas and practices associated with health and illness, biomedical research and human values.

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