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Alternative medicine stirs up controversy

Naturopathic institutions represented at SUS Grad Fair

On November 7, the Science Undergraduate Society (SUS) hosted the seventh annual Graduate and Professional Schools Fair. With the goal of acquainting students with their options for postgraduate opportunities, the fair hosted over 30 academic institutions. From medical schools to the Academy of Applied Pharmaceutical Sciences, a range of institutions were given the opportunity to promote their programs to science undergraduates.

Notably, and to the surprise of some students, two naturopathic medicine institutions were represented at this year’s graduate school fair. When asked for a distinction between a naturopathic doctor (ND) and a medical doctor (MD), Stephanie Ogura, the representative for the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), explained in an interview with The Daily that naturopaths “assess the whole person, not the organ system.”  Among the modalities of naturopathic medicine taught at the CCNM are botanical medicine, clinical nutrition, and homeopathy. Homeopathy is the focus of the other naturopathic institution represented at the fair, the Ontario College of Homeopathic Medicine (OCHM).

Homeopathy is perhaps the branch of naturopathy most commonly disparaged and criticized in mainstream media. According to the Ontario Homeopathic Association’s website, homeopathy is based, at its core, on a principle of “like cures like”; that is, a disease with a certain set of symptoms will be cured by a remedy that will, in a healthy person, produce a similar set of symptoms.

This belief – and its relative lack of scientific support – draws much skepticism from the conventional medical and scientific communities. The James Randi Educational Foundation, a self-described “educational resource on the paranormal, pseudoscientific, and the supernatural,” issued a press release in March stating the foundation’s stance that naturopathy should not become accredited, referring to it as “a hodge-podge of beliefs and health treatments.” The foundation conceded that some of these treatments can be beneficial, but called others “pseudoscientific nonsense” that has been repeatedly disproven by clinical trials. Prevailing opinions among conventional medical practitioners add to the lack of perceived legitimacy for homeopathy and naturopathy. Ogura stated that while naturopathic doctors often wish to collaborate with MDs, the feeling isn’t mutual: “Medical doctors don’t extend the same respect, in general.”

Such controversy may be the reason for the sparse accreditation and regulation of naturopathy and homeopathy as medical practices. Currently, Ontario is the only province in Canada that has designated homeopathy a regulated health profession. That is, outside of Ontario, no legal recognition exists for homeopaths in Canada; even Ontario’s recognition was itself recent, conferred by the Homeopathy Act of 2007.

In Quebec, however, while naturopathic medicine is not actually illegal, it exists in a limbo state of ‘a-legality.’ Ogura explained, “[In places] where naturopathic doctors have the endorsement from the government [to] practice as primary care physicians, they’re really on an even ground with the MDs. [However], in jurisdictions such as Quebec, […] the government hasn’t said that naturopathic doctors are primary care physicians.”

Some who practice naturopathic medicine seek collaboration with conventional doctors; both Paula Guilbeault-Roballo, the representative for OCHM at the graduate fair, and Ogura characterized such collaboration as ideal. However, there are also those who view conventional medicine to be more harmful than homeopathy. Andre Saine, a homeopathic doctor, stated in 2005 at the Baltimore Homeopathic Study Group that “there is not a single report showing the superiority of [conventional medicine] over genuine homeopathy.” He went on to compare statistics of deaths resulting from each branch of medicine over the course of history, and also cited anecdotal evidence. Such anecdotes, along with a slowly growing body of scientific research, have formed the basis of naturopathy’s attempts to legitimize itself. Guilbeault-Roballo stated, “There is a great need for funding of more research. The anecdotal evidence is abundant and irrefutable but we definitely need more studies.”

Still other supporters of alternative medicine view it as an improvement over the problems encountered within conventional medicine – problems such as ageism, a situation in which the elderly are not treated as though they deserve the same level of care as younger individuals, which Dr. Nathan Stall wrote about in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in May. While the social failings of conventional medicine certainly do not confer scientific legitimacy to naturopathic medicine, for supporters of naturopathy such issues in the existing medical system highlight the value of having an alternative system.

While the debate over the legitimacy of homeopathy – as well as our ability to properly define and determine its legitimacy with an inherently limited scientific process – rages on, the more pressing question is this: given that homeopathy enjoys limited accreditation, should the SUS promote these institutions, albeit indirectly, by giving them space in this fair? Leif Ásgeirsson, a U3 Physiology student asserted that such inclusion is “inappropriate.” In an interview with The Daily, he stated, “It’s shocking to me that this event organized by science students is bringing representatives from the Ontario College of Homeopathic Medicine and having them recruit students alongside the [McGill] Faculty of Medicine as though they’re equally legitimate.”

But this is not the first year these institutions have set up booths in the SSMU ballroom – Ogura herself has personally represented CCNM for the past five or six years – and it is unlikely to be the last. Kate Zhang, VP Academic for SUS, told The Daily that the SUS does not select the institutions that set up displays; rather, they invite as many schools as possible. When asked about the inclusion of controversial medical programs like homeopathy and naturopathy, Zhang stated that “We do not want to restrict the scope of programs. We’re just displaying the options and [undergraduates] can explore whatever they want.” Such impartiality is admirable, but one wonders: even if the controversy surrounding homeopathy should not be enough to bar these institutions from the fair, should the limited reach of homeopathic medicine and its related professions be a factor?