Researcher wants oversight of alternative health care to ensure 'science-based' practices

The proposition from Timothy Caulfield follows a series of public complaints and media reports about naturopaths and chiropractors in B.C.

B.C.'s chiropractic and naturopathic colleges ask members to scrub unsupported claims from websites

A recent study reveals that anti-vaccination rhetoric is not uncommon on the websites of naturopaths in B.C. and Alberta. ( Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

A prominent researcher is calling for the creation of an independent body to monitor the claims of alternative health professionals, following a series of public complaints and media reports about naturopaths and chiropractors in B.C.

Timothy Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, told CBC he's not necessarily against self-regulation in the alternative health professions, but he wants to make sure practitioners are making claims that are supported by science.

"If we are going to have these regulated alternative practitioners, why not create an independent regulatory entity that would sit on top of their regulatory board?" Caulfield said.

"The goal there would be to ensure that they're adhering to a science-based standard."

His comments come after CBC revealed that three registered B.C. naturopaths are the subject of a public complaint about a homeopathic therapy promising "complete elimination" of autism. The treatment is based on the unsupported premise that most autism is caused by vaccines.

The College of Naturopathic Physicians of B.C. has opened an investigation, and, in the meantime, says it's undertaking a "review and enforcement drive" to make sure practitioners are following the rules on advertising and immunization.

The college is asking all naturopaths to make sure their websites and social media don't contain anti-vaccination rhetoric or misleading claims.

Chiropractors face scrutiny

The College of Chiropractors of B.C. has made a similar request to its members, after CBC reported that a number of chiropractors across the province had created anti-immunization posts on social media. Chiropractors in this province are barred from giving advice about immunization, because they are not trained in preventing infectious disease.

The college's vice-chair, Avtar Jassal, stepped down from his post earlier this month because of an anti-vaccination video he had created. The college has also promised an independent investigation.

Caulfield said those recent cases highlight the need for independent oversight of professions like naturopathy and chiropractic.

"If they are science-based, step up and be science-based. If they're not science-based, make that explicit, and then society can have an interesting discussion about whether we should have these philosophies … as part of our health-care system," he said.

Timothy Caulfield is the Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta (CBC/Sam Martin)

Officials with the B.C. Health Ministry said they were unable to respond to Caulfield's proposal by deadline Monday.

Howard Greenstein, the registrar for the naturopathic college, said the college takes complaints about practitioners very seriously.

"Any advertising or marketing has to be accurate, has to be truthful. They must not advertise or promote or provide or recommend anything that could be considered an alternative to immunization," he told CBC host Angela Sterritt on Friday.

Nonetheless, Caulfield's research shows that anti-vaccination statements are not uncommon in the naturopathic profession.

In a study published last year, he reviewed 330 naturopath websites in B.C. and Alberta, and found that 40 included anti-vaccination views or skepticism about vaccine safety and 26 offered alternatives to the flu shot.

'Offside material'

Meanwhile, CBC has confirmed that another two board members for the College of Chiropractors of B.C. have been the subject of previous public complaints about statements made on public media.

The college said that Parm Rai and Gil Desaulniers were asked to remove multiple Facebook posts questioning the use of vaccines after a member of the public pointed them in November .

"Both responded promptly to recent requests that offside material be removed from their websites," college registrar Frances Picherack said in a written statement earlier this month.

And there are signs that the college's 2015 policy barring discussion of vaccines with patients is controversial among chiropractors.

At the college's annual general meeting in 2016, members voted to repeal the policy by a margin of 44-39. Despite the vote, the policy remained in place.

College officials have not responded to requests for comment on that vote or the status of the independent investigation the college has promised.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Reach me at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.