Key Points:

Access to non-Western medical practices such as traditional Chinese medicine should be improved and even integrated into the New Zealand health system, a university report says.

Massey University researchers looked at the work of 14 immigrant and overseas-trained doctors who set up traditional medical practices after they could not get registered as doctors in Auckland, Palmerston North and Wellington between July 2004 and February 2005.

Their report found practitioners of non-Western medicine are being "marginalised" and that "this marginal position created a range of difficulties in their practice and contrasted sharply with their status and practice in their country of origin".

It also found that it had limited "interactions" with New Zealand's health system, and this made it difficult and costly for people to access alternative treatments.

"An important implication of the marginal status is that with the exception of ACC-funded acupuncture, the services are not subsidised, and clients must pay out of their own pocket for the services".

Researchers said further studies are needed to look into the needs of Asian immigrant communities around these medical traditions, and that the findings should be used to inform policies.

Acupuncturist Say Somphonnarath, an immigrant and former GP from Laos, said it was "normal" for most Asians to "mix traditional and Western health treatments".

She said: "Many in the Asian communities don't see acupuncture or even Western medicine as stand-alone treatments, but if combined, it can become a more effective method to treat their ailments."

Acupuncture has been used for more than 2000 years in Chinese medicine to treat a variety of ailments. According to Dr Somphonnarath, specific acupuncture points are connected to internal pathways that conduct energy, or qi, and stimulating these points with a fine needle promotes healthy flow of the qi.

Indian immigrant Niketa Jeyaram, who suffers from a spinal injury, combines her physiotherapy with Ayurvedic, an ancient Hindu system of healthcare, which costs her $80 per session because it is not funded by ACC.

Ms Jeyaram, 68, said she believed Ayurvedic methods were "far more effective" than "all the Western therapy and painkillers combined".

"By not integrating non-Western treatments into New Zealand's health system, I feel we are being discriminated against for choosing the type of treatment we are comfortable with," she said.

The report, titled Immigrant doctors practising non-Western medicine, was written as part of the university's New Settlers programme.

Other recommendations included that New Zealand "learn from the immigrant doctors' experiences and perspectives" and to look at "other OECD countries and their experiences of integrating and improving access to TCM, Ayurvedic and homeopathic medicine".

It also said further studies were needed on "the effectiveness of these medical traditions to ease the burden of symptoms ... where Western medicine is ineffective".