Last updated: 8 August 2023
Legal Guide for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) Practitioners – Australians have access to a wide range of complementary and alternative medical therapies and these treatments continue to grow in popularity. Some of these treatments and practices are used alongside conventional medical treatments, others are used independently of them.
While complementary and alternative health therapies become more and more widespread, in many cases, the legal and regulatory environment surrounding them remains complicated:
- Safety issues and regulation of ‘complementary medicines’
- Some treatments and modalities are regulated others are not
- Strict rules regarding the type of language that can be used to describe a therapy or treatment, etc.
TLDR: Quick Summary of this Legal Guide
- Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) includes a wide range of treatments and modalities such as acupuncture, chiropractic therapy, aromatherapy, ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy, naturopathy, etc.
- CAM practitioners must hold the appropriate qualifications and register with AHPRA (Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency) or a professional association, depending on the treatment type.
- Alternative health advice carries legal risks, so practitioners should obtain informed consent from clients and use a Risk/Liability Waiver or Consent Form.
- There are strict privacy laws regarding collecting, storing and destroying personal health information – and you need to comply with these regulations (explained below).
- Businesses selling health and medical advice, products or services must provide accurate and truthful information to consumers – and never make promises about what your products or services can do!
This is a complex area and we have tried to provide the most up-to-date information. Please check with your State or Territory administration and/or Professional Organisation for the latest regulations and requirements – as the regulations are changing quickly due to the speed at which these treatments and techniques are evolving and developing.
Legal issues covered in this guide
Click on any of the questions below to jump to that section of this legal guide.
- Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) Definition
- Registration, Qualifications and Associations
- Legal Issues
- Medical History, Privacy and Consent Forms
- Should I use a Medical/Health History Checklist with my clients?
- Should my clients sign a Risk/Liability Waiver or Consent Form?
- What are my responsibilities for keeping personal health information private?
- What are my responsibilities for keeping health records?
- Should I use a Medical/Health History Checklist with my clients?
- Structuring Your CAM Business
- What business structure should I use for my alternative health business?
- What promises can I make when offering my health advice?
- Do alternative health practitioners need professional indemnity insurance?
- In the event I am sued for my health services, how can I limit my liability?
- If I employ people what legal precautions should I take?
- What business structure should I use for my alternative health business?
If after reading this guide you still have a question, get in touch as we’d love to keep adding your questions to this comprehensive guide.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) Definition
What treatments are included in CAM?
‘Complementary and Alternative Medicine’ (CAM) includes a range of treatments and modalities, such as:
- Ayurvedic medicine
- Chinese herbal medicine
- Chiropractic therapy
- Herbal medicine
- Massage therapy
- Nutritional therapy
Some of these practices and their respective health care professionals may also be referred to as a group by such terms as:
- Allied health
- Alternative medicine
- Complementary medicine
- Holistic medicine
- Integrative medicine
- Natural health
- New-age therapies
- Traditional medicine
- Unconventional medicine
- Unorthodox medicine
‘Allied health’ is a relatively new term and it still does not have a universally agreed definition. In general, Allied health professionals are qualified practitioners with expertise in diagnosing, treating and preventing a variety of illnesses and conditions. Some practices require university degrees while others require only certification. However, they are not part of the conventional medical, dental or nursing professions.
Alternative therapies might also be called ‘Complementary’, ‘Traditional’ or ‘Holistic’ therapies. They include a variety of treatments that are usually outside of conventional medicine. The term ‘Complementary’ is often used when these treatments are used alongside conventional medicine. The term ‘Alternative’ may be used when these treatments are used in place of conventional medical treatments.
Throughout this legal guide, we will use the terms ‘Alternative therapy’ and ‘Complementary therapy’ interchangeably.
What is the difference between an Alternative Health practitioner and an Alternative Medicine practitioner?
These terms are interchangeable. An alternative health practitioner may also be referred to as an alternative medicine practitioner or a complementary medicine practitioner.
The terms practitioner, provider and therapist are also interchangeable. So, for example, an acupuncturist may be referred to as a acupuncture practitioner, acupuncture provider or acupuncture therapist.
Registration, Qualifications and Associations
Do I need to register to be a CAM practitioner?
This depends on your area of practice.
The alternative health industry, depending on treatment type, is regulated by either:
- The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) or
- Self-regulated by professional associations responsible for setting and maintaining standards and certifications
Currently, the following 6 CAM modalities are regulated nationally by AHPRA and if you practice in these areas you are required by Australian law to register and be approved by AHPRA. For the other CAM modalities, registration with a professional association is “encouraged” but not legally required:
National Registration (AHPRA)
- Chinese herbal medicine
- Chiropractic therapy
Self-Regulation / Associations
- Ayurvedic medicine
- Herbal medicine
- Massage therapy
- Nutritional therapy
Australia, is moving towards are national, centralised registration regime – where AHPRA will coordinate registration of all alternative practitioners under an expanded number of “Boards”. Progress has been slow – but keep checking with you national association or State and Territory to make sure you’re up-to-date with the latest requirements.
Where do I find more information about being registered?
The following table has links to the national associations that coordinate practitioner registration:
In additional to the associations listed above, the Australian Traditional Medicine Society has become the “peak” association in Australia that registers and represents the interests of all the CAM modalities and treatments. Registering with them allows you to be part of their searchable database of practitioners – useful for growing your practice.
What qualifications do I need to be a CAM practitioner?
This depends on your area of practice and your State or Territory.
In some cases, no qualifications are required. In other cases, you need TAFE qualifications such as a Certificate IV or diploma, or even university level qualifications.
If your specialisation is regulated by AHPRA, your qualifications need to be from an institution or program that is approved by AHPRA. In addition, you must prove proficiency with the English language.
If your specialisation is not regulated by AHPRA, check with your relevant national professional association and your State or Territory.
What are the benefits of being part of an Association?
In general, being part of an Association is good for business. Clients look for practitioners who are qualified, licensed, up-to-date with current therapies and members of Australian professional associations.
If a practitioner is a member of their professional association then they usually need to:
- Hold an approved qualification or certificate
- Meet the membership competency standards
- Maintain certain standards of care
- Abide by a code of ethics or code of conduct
- Attend continuing professional development/education courses
In addition, almost all the CAM associations in Australia have negotiated favorable professional liability insurance policies that their members have access to. If you’re not part of an association, you might even find it difficult to access professional indemnity insurance.
Do the natural medicines/herbs/supplements I prescribe need to be approved by the TGA?
Yes. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is a federal government department that regulates all medicines in Australia, including complementary medicines.
In Australia, the term ‘complementary medicines’ refers to medicinal products containing ingredients such as herbs, vitamins, minerals, nutritional supplements, homeopathic medicines and aromatherapy products.
These products are regulated as medicines by the TGA. In most cases, these products must be entered on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods before they can be imported, exported, manufactured or supplied for use in Australia. There are some limited exemptions for certain products, but unless you are certain that you are dealing with an exempt product then you should assume that your complementary medicines need to be approved by the TGA.
A branch of the TGA, called the Office of Complementary Medicines, oversees the recall of faulty or dangerous complementary medicines. Under Australian law, every complementary medicine is assessed for the safety and quality of its ingredients, but not always for efficacy (how well it works or the impact it may have). Only complementary medicines that are deemed ‘high risk’ are assessed for efficacy. The TGA does this by looking at data from clinical trials supplied by the manufacturer.
What legal issues are there with offering alternative health advice?
There are a number of legal risks involved with alternative health advice.
If you provide alternative health or any advice which leads to negative health outcomes for someone, then you could become legally liable.
If you advise someone to use or administer an alternative health treatment, instead of following a conventional medical treatment, you may risk a claim if their health deteriorates. For many health conditions, if a person delays getting conventional medical treatment it can lead to serious health complications or even death.
In addition, alternative health treatments can have their own side effects. If you are using untested or unregulated treatments or products, then there can be unintended health consequences. In some cases, the alternative treatments can interfere with conventional treatments. For example, they could interact with drugs that the person has been prescribed and is currently taking.
The medical profession is highly regulated in Australia. In some cases, if you are providing advice in relation to alternative health treatments, you could find that your advice has ventured into an area that is reserved for registered medical practitioners. If you are found to have been providing ‘medical’ advice without the necessary qualifications or registration, you could face significant penalties.
What legal issues are there when working with children?
When providing health treatments, it is important that the person receiving treatment provides their ‘informed’ consent generally.
Informed consent means that the person must understand all of the available options, any risks and the likelihood of those risks, the benefits and the purpose of the treatment.
When children are receiving conventional medical treatments, consent should be obtained from the parent or guardian. In most cases, children under the age of 18 are considered unable to provide their own consent, so their parents need to provide it on their behalf. The parents are required to act in the best interests of their child when choosing whether or not to provide consent.
For alternative medical treatments, the situation can be a bit more complicated, especially if you are dealing with unregulated and/or unproven treatments. This can make it more difficult to ensure that the parents and the child understand the risks, benefits and the purpose of the treatment. It can also make it more difficult for you to show that the parents were acting in the child’s best interests when they chose to go ahead with the treatment – especially if the treatment is not backed by evidence or if it is the chosen treatment over/instead of traditional medical care.
What legal issues are there when working with vulnerable adults?
The situation regarding treatment of vulnerable adults is very similar to providing any services to children.
Before providing any treatment, you need to make sure your client has given their ‘informed’ consent. This means you need to make sure they understand all of the available options, any risks, the benefits and the purpose of the treatment. In some cases, ensuring they have consulted a medical practitioner prior to commencing any alternative medical treatments is necessary.
If you are dealing with a vulnerable adult who is or may be unable to understand these matters, then you need to obtain informed consent by someone who is legally authorised to on their behalf and who understands the relevant considerations.
Medical History, Privacy and Consent Forms
Should I use a Medical/Health History Checklist with my clients?
Yes, but only for information that is relevant to the services you are going to provide. When collecting health and medical information, you need to be able to show that you require this information in order to provide your services.
Obtaining relevant health history information from your clients may help you to consider their overall circumstances and provide them with better tailored services.
However, Australia has some strict privacy laws that you should keep in mind when collecting health and medical information from your clients. In particular, under Australian law you can collect health information if the client consents (expressly or impliedly) and the information is reasonably necessary for your activities. With the collection of this information, there are certain legal statements that must accompany this collection as well as compliance measures you need to put in place in your business for any such collection.
A health history checklist could be a valuable tool in your business – as you can use it to have your clients to volunteer some relevant information required to help you provide the services. But it may mean extra compliance measures in your business and work.
In terms of what should be included in the checklist – this really depends on the nature of your services, but all of the information you are seeking must be directly relevant to the services you are providing. For example, it could be relevant to ask your clients about:
- Any conditions or injuries that they are currently experiencing
- Any similar treatments they have had and what the outcomes were
- Any other treatments they are currently undertaking
- Any medication they are currently taking, etc.
Should my clients sign a Risk/Liability Waiver or Consent Form?
One way or another, you should ensure that your clients provide:
- Informed consent to your services
- Acceptance of any risks related to your services, and
- A waiver (as much as the law permits) of any claims they may have against you resulting from their choice to use your services
A common method is by having clients sign a Risk Waiver, Liability Waiver and/or combined Consent Form. This type of form should notify the client of all of the relevant risks and ask the client to sign the form to accept any risks and waive any claims they may have against you. This is particularly relevant when choosing alternative and complementary treatments rather than more common medical treatments.
These are very important matters that you need to get right to protect yourself. So if you have any concerns about how you implement this process – for example, what to include in your form and when clients should sign it – you should seek legal advice. Do not ever consider writing your own forms, terms or agreements when dealing with health related matters!
- Your organisation’s identity and contact details
- Details about what information you collect, how you collect it and how you store it
- The circumstances in which you might share their information with anyone else (for example, if sharing their information with their GP, with a child client’s parents or if required to do so by law)
- Whether you are likely to transfer their information overseas, and if so, where to
- The purpose for which you are collecting the information
- Any consequences for the client if the information is not collected
- How the client can access and correct the information that you are holding
- How the client can make a complaint and how you deal with complaints
You should also have a specific Health Related Privacy Statement that needs to accompany the collection of this health information. It should include information about requirement for such collection, who can access it, what it is used for and when and how you will destroy it, to meet the health legislation for the State or Territory you are located.
What are my responsibilities for keeping personal health information private?
Australian privacy law sets out some strict rules regarding the collection, storage and destruction of health information.
You need to understand your compliance requirements for using health related information including how you must keep your clients’ personal health information private, except for a few limited exceptions. For example, you may be allowed to share their health information with third parties (such as their GP or other members of their medical team) with the client’s consent or in other limited circumstances such as real potential for injury, regulatory or other legislated circumstances.
You may also be permitted to share their personal health information if required by law to do so. For example, if you are ordered by a court to disclose the information.
Many businesses store their records using cloud based providers – but you will need your clients to consent to this, especially if the records are going to be stored outside Australia. Some countries are extremely strict about any transfer of personal health information outside collection country such as the UK and EU. You need to understand what these requirements are before you commence any marketing or business with any UK and EU GDPR regulated country residents.
There can be high penalties for mishandling personal information, so you need to take privacy very seriously.
What are my responsibilities for keeping health records?
Under the National Code of Conduct for Health Care Workers, health care workers are required to keep appropriate records and these records should be accurate, legible and up-to-date. There are also different requirements depending on the State or Territory you are located in Australia.
As discussed above, you must protect the confidentiality of these records. At the same time, you have obligations to your clients to provide them with high quality services – and your records will be relevant to this.
Your records will also be important if your clients ever make a complaint about your services. For example, if a client sues you for negligence, you will need to have their records available, particularly if subpoenaed by a court.
As for how long you should keep your records – it depends on the individual circumstances and the relevant legislation. Health information is expected to be purged regularly and updated regularly. However, if a client has disclosed to you that they were a victim of a crime, then you will need to keep your records until the statutory limitation period expires. If the client has made a complaint about you, then you should keep your records indefinitely.
In most other circumstances, for adult clients, you should keep your records for at least seven years from the time of your last contact with the client. For children, you should keep your records for at least seven years from the date the client turned 18.
Structuring Your CAM Business
What business structure should I use for my alternative health business?
In Australia, there are generally 4 options for structuring your business:
- Sole trader
- Pty Ltd Company
- Partnership, and
The best business structure for you will depend on your personal circumstances – and getting this decision right is very important. So talk to your accountant about the pros and cons of each option. Here’s a quick summary of each option.
Being a Sole Trader is the simplest and least expensive option. Designed for business owners who are the sole proprietors of their companies, this structure doesn’t give you much protection if things go wrong. Your personal assets are unprotected from any claims arising from your business.
Incorporation (i.e. forming a Proprietary Limited Company, Pty Ltd) effectively makes your business a separate legal entity from you. This structure involves quite a bit of paperwork and can be more expensive to maintain but it offers your personal assets protection from liability. Only your Company assets are at risk in the event of any legal actions and Company debts.
Creating a Partnership allows you to go into business with multiple people and share income. Partnerships are easier and less expensive than Companies to set up. However, all partners together are personally responsible for business debts and actions against the Partnership. And each partner is individually liable for debts incurred by the other partners. This means you have unlimited liability, unlike a Company structure.
A Trust isn’t an organisation at all, but instead a legal structure to hold assets. For example, you might set up a Trust to hold your business assets, then appoint a Trustee to manage them. Typically, the Trustee is a Company and the Trust provides asset protection and limits liability from operating the business. Trusts are very flexible for tax purposes. However, a Trust is a complex legal structure and establishing a Trust costs significantly more than a Sole Trader or Partnership.
For more detailed information on each of these business structures, see our feature article: How to Choose the Right Business Structure in Australia.
What promises can I make when offering my health advice?
In short, you must tell the truth. You cannot make any promises as nothing is able to be guaranteed when dealing with health matters and the variety of client situations you may see.
Australian Consumer Law (ACL) set out in Schedule 2 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Commonwealth) governs advertising and marketing in Australia. It lays out the rules regarding what can and cannot be said in advertising and promotion of your goods and services.
Under the ACL, businesses selling health and medical products or services are required to provide consumers with “accurate and truthful information” about those products and services, so that consumers can make informed decisions.
This means you should be very careful about any comments and recommendations – and never make promises about what your products or services can do!
Do alternative health practitioners need professional indemnity insurance?
It is not recommended that you work in any area of alternative health or complementary medicine or any health-related practice without insurance.
Due to the nature of the health industry, there is a significant risk that clients could make a claim and/or you could incur legal liability in connection with your work. In particular, if a client becomes sick, hurt or injured and they think, believe or wish to place blame, then they could commence legal action against you.
AHPRA and most of the CAM professional associations require their members to have some form of professional indemnity insurance. For some fields within alternative health, insurance may also be required by relevant laws or regulations.
The National Code of Conduct for Health Care Workers (which applies to many alternative medicine practitioners in Australia) also requires that healthcare workers be covered by appropriate insurance.
In any case, insurance is a small price to pay for the protection that it provides, especially in a field such as this which contains significant risk. Therefore, regardless of whether or not you are obliged to obtain insurance, we recommend that anyone operating in this area considers taking out an insurance policy.
In the event I am sued for my health services, how can I limit my liability?
Limiting your liability requires forward planning for your business including compliance practices and good legal protection in place. You can limit your liability by taking a number of steps to protect yourself to avoid potential issues. If someone has already sued you, you have far fewer options and it is quite difficult to limit your liability than you would have had with some forward planning.
As discussed above, insurance is one important step which you can take as well as having good clear legal terms in place with your clients.
In addition to this, you can consider whether it is worth taking advantage of one of the business structures that offer some liability protection, such as a company or a trust structure.
You need to ensure that you have a high quality set of Terms & Conditions, which include appropriate disclaimers, risk warnings and limitation of liability clauses with your clients. These Terms & Conditions will set out the details of the relationship between you and your clients and can highlight the risks that they are accepting when they engage you. Your agreement and terms with your clients go a long way to providing necessary protection for both you and your business.
If I employ people what legal precautions should I take?
As with all employees in Australia, you should make sure that you have a good employment contract which sets out all of the relevant terms of their employment. You should make sure you are complying with ordinary employment laws such as the National Employment Standards under the Fair Work Act, as well as any applicable employment awards and workplace health and safety laws.
If you are dealing with minor children, you need to have a Child Safety policy in place and also do relevant security checks on your employees for dealing with minors.
You also need to make sure that your employees are bound by confidentiality obligations so that they help to keep your clients’ information confidential. This may be done via a confidentiality clause in their employment contract, or by having a standalone confidentiality agreement.
Your employees also need to understand their obligations to you and your clients and understand your various policies, procedures and compliance measures in the workplace. This is where it is important to have a good set of written workplace policies which employees can read and refer to.
Depending on your area of practice, you may also need to ensure that your employees hold the relevant qualifications and registrations and keep up to date with their continuing education.
In addition to this, you should make sure that you have appropriate insurance in place which covers you for workers compensation claims from your employees as well as insurance policies that cover your employees and yourself in practice. If your employees are working directly with clients (rather than working in administrative roles) then you may also ensure that they are covered by your professional indemnity insurance. For example, if a client sues you for something that your employee did, you will need insurance which covers this claim.
In addition to insurance, you may also wish to reconsider your business structure, as it may be appropriate to convert to a new structure in order to better manage your liability, taxes and other relevant matters if you are hiring employees. As a sole trader, hiring contractors may not be suitable as there are restrictions related to how and when you can hire contractors which may not work for your business.
You can find out more about when you can hire contractors from our free legal guide: How to Hire an Independent Contractor, Freelancer or Consultant.
Workplace and compliance policies are also a useful tool, especially if you have employees in your business. These policies can be used to create a set of standard procedures and guidelines for how your services are provided and how your employees should behave. Through the use of these policies, you can make sure to develop standard procedures which are safe and effective and which minimise the risk of any issues arising. By putting these policies in writing and providing them to your employees, you can make sure that your employees all understand and acknowledge what is expected of them.
Dealing with health related services can be higher risk and complicated but we are here to help make it easier.
We hope you found this Legal Guide for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Practitioners helpful.