Alternative health can become like a religion

Over the past several weeks we have all been reading and hearing about the tragic case from Lethbridge, Alberta of the 19 month old toddler who died of viral meningitis in 2012.

The toddler’s parents have been on trial and were found guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life because they did not seek proper medical attention for their son though he was sick for a couple of weeks.

Instead, they visited a naturopath and treated the infant with herbs and other natural remedies including hot pepper and horseradish. When they finally sought medical help, the boy had stopped breathing and subsequently died.

The case has been widely broadcast and the details were very sad to hear. In this instance, no one questioned the parents’ love for their child – they thought they were doing the right things to help him. However, their zeal for alternative healthcare led to the death of their son from a treatable illness.

 Now, Alberta is beginning an investigation into naturopathic care – determining whether this particular practitioner or the profession in general should be held responsible for health outcomes.

Today there seems to be a growing number of people who distrust institutional medicine and healthcare providers. Some experts have examined the phenomenon and say there seem to be elements of distrust of people in authority as well as faith at play.

When people do their own health research online with this lens it is not difficult to find websites and entire online communities advocating natural cures for virtually any condition. Beliefs are reinforced and become more entrenched. Soon, when someone offers a scientific explanation or correction, it is viewed with suspicion or taken as a personal insult.

There is nothing inherently wrong with ‘natural’ medicine. Many of our most powerful treatments are derived from natural ingredients. On the flip side, many natural substances can also be very toxic or even life threatening.

In standard medicine, we ascertain an ingredient or treatment’s effectiveness and safety through clinical trials. Using a rigorous scientific model we can test and learn whether a substance actually works to treat a particular symptom or condition.

Unfortunately, the bulk of alternative health care treatments have not been subjected to scientific testing. Practitioners and patients rely on testimonials and faith that Mother Nature will be a healer.

Some ‘treatments’ such as homeopathy, have been proven ineffective and yet many people still use them.

For adults with mild ailments, many of these sorts of natural remedies are not harmful. The individual may receive some placebo benefit and can certainly take them if they choose. It’s a different story though when people who are really sick waste their time and money on unproven or ineffective therapies. When parents use these methods to treat vulnerable children it also raises serious ethical questions.

I believe all health care practitioners should face the same regulatory requirements as standard medical treatments and professionals. Therapies should be scientifically tested and found effective before they are can make health claims or be sold or practiced as treatments in Canada.




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