Does Natural Medicine Have a Role in Healthcare & Beyond?

“A mistake that a lot of people make, and I’ve been guilty of this as well, is that we assume that just because something is natural it is therefore safe, and ergo, good for us. I like to point out that cobras are natural too, but I don’t want to kiss one.” ~ Steve Bivans

One of the tragic stories in the headlines right now involves a toddler who died from meningitis after his parents sought natural treatment. This happened here in Alberta but has become a nationwide story, and perhaps even more globally, shining a spotlight on natural medicine. As a family physician, I have invariably come up against believers and non-believers of natural/alternative medicine. In fact, in my experience, patients often assume western-trained physicians distrust any treatment that is not conventional. Unfortunately, this recent case does not help such perceptions.

If you have followed this heart wrenching story, you may have heard that the parents of the 19 month old were recently charged with “failing to provide the necessaries of life”. The news reports state that in 2012, they drove their very ill son, who could not even sit due to meningeal inflammation, to a naturopath, where he received a natural remedy. Later that day, he stopped breathing and subsequently died from bacterial meningitis.

How could such a tragedy happen in today’s advanced healthcare system? According to an article in The Canadian Press by Bill Graveland, “experts say it’s faith in all things natural combined with a distrust of science and possibly authority that leads some to bypass the medical system – even to the point where they put themselves or their children at risk.” No surprise, a great deal of focus is now on the role and regulation of natural medicine.

In a recent article in The Globe and Mail by Carly weeks, she accurately states “Many people are fed up with conventional health care – waiting lists, drug side effects, busy doctors who have no time for a discussion – and the limits of medicine when it comes to chronic health problems. Many naturopaths are branding themselves as the solution, promising they have the keys to help anyone get rid of what ails them.”

Naturopaths also fall in line with the anti-vaccine movement that has been largely comprised of non-medical quackery and has lead to a resurgence of preventable diseases. Despite a fairly global awareness of the benefits and life-saving properties of vaccinations, a few well-known celebrities have spurned the anti-vaccine fear.

Fortunately, well publicized benefits of vaccines such as those outlined by Seattle Mama Doc Wendy Sue Swanson around the Disneyland outbreak in 2014, highlight the potential for positive public health messaging. Look at how many people did not contract measles because of the MMR vaccination.

What is naturopathy?

Given how little I truly know on this topic (even as a physician – I am guessing I am not alone), I will touch on it briefly and simply. Personally, I like and have no problem with the definition from the journal Primary Care:

“Naturopathy is a distinct type of primary care medicine that blends age-old healing traditions with scientific advances and current research. It is guided by a unique set of principles that recognize the body’s innate healing capacity, emphasize disease prevention, and encourage individual responsibility to obtain optimal health.”

Some medical doctors are licensed to practice complementary medicine, which incorporates conventional medicine with non-mainstream modalities (i.e. acupuncture, homeopathy). On the other hand, a naturopathic doctor exclusively uses unconventional treatment modalities (considered alternative medicine), and hence, wherein the concerns with regulation and scope of practice exist.

Does natural medicine have a role in healthcare in 2016 & beyond?

If we look back at the definition of naturopathy, “emphasize disease prevention and encourage individual responsibility to obtain optimal health”, these points would be ideals of any healthcare system. However, to illustrate the limitations, consider a very pure form of natural medicine – exercise. Although exercise may help manage very mild forms of type 2 diabetes, it would be inappropriate to use it as an exclusive treatment plan.

In the end, I believe naturopathy can have a role in healthcare in certain instances when and where conventional medicine may not be warranted and people are looking for alternative ways to feel better. Having said this, I think problems will continue to arise when naturopathy is used exclusively and extremely.

Come into my home and you will see evidence of essential oil aromatherapy throughout – diffusers, roll-ons, and creams. Complementary – yes. Alternative to conventional medicine – certainly not. We happen to enjoy the scents and sensations they bring – improving our well-being, but not curing disease.