Faith in natural remedies 'like a religion,' say experts watching Lethbridge trial

Experts contend it's a deeply held belief in all things natural combined with a distrust of science that can lead people to bypass the medical system, even when it can lead to poor outcomes.

Case against David and Collet Stephan shines light on issue of when parents have duty to get medical help

David Stephan, 32, and his wife Collet Stephan, 35, have pleaded not guilty to failing to provide the necessaries of life for 19-month-old Ezekiel, who died in March 2012. (Facebook)

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.

"It's like a religion to them," says Tim Caulfield, research director of the University of Alberta's Health Law and Science Policy Group. He has written the books The Cure for Everything! Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness and Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

"Studies have shown that some people are more likely to believe these kinds of things. They're more likely to believe in the supernatural. They're more likely to be religious and they're more likely to buy the entire package of complementary and alternative practices."

A trial in Lethbridge, Alta, has shone a light upon the reliance on natural medicine and the question of when medical attention should be sought for a sick child.

Why naturopaths should not be your primary care provider: Tim Caulfield

7 years ago
Duration 3:28
Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta says many naturopathic practices have no basis in science. He says those who put their faith in naturopathy's ability to heal may also be putting their health at risk.

David and Collet Stephan are charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life after treating their 19-month-old sick son, Ezekiel, with smoothies containing hot peppers, onions and horseradish.

Court heard how the boy swung between illness and recovery for days in March 2012 before a family friend and nurse suggested the child could be suffering from viral meningitis and should see a doctor.

The mother opted to visit a naturopath instead. By that time, the toddler was so stiff he couldn't sit in his car seat. Later that day, Ezekiel stopped breathing and was rushed to hospital. The medical examiner ruled he died of bacterial meningitis.

University of Calgary bioethicist Juliet Guichon says it's not uncommon for parents to discount medical advice.

Element of irrationality 

"There's an element of irrationality in the rejection of physician advice. If physicians are telling people things they don't want to hear, then it's hard for the patient and the family to accept what they're being told," Guichon says. "I wonder if it's a distrust of people in authority generally."

The Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors says naturopathic medicine aims to stimulate the body's own healing power to fight underlying causes of disease. Its members are required to identify when health issues are beyond their "scope of practice" and to refer patients to physicians or other health-care professionals.

David Stephan and his wife, Collet Stephan, during their March trial. The Stephans are on trial for failing to provide the necessaries of life for 19-month-old Ezekiel, who died in March 2012. (David Rossiter/Canadian Press)

Beverly Huang, president of the College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta, says there are about 250 registered naturopathic doctors in the province. Their goal is to try to prevent disease.

"Our doctors are required to understand their limitations of their practice and, as such, when the situation arises where a naturopathic doctor recognizes the patient care is beyond their scope of practice, or beyond their limitations, that they would refer to an appropriate health-care provider," Huang said.

"Our mandate is to ensure doctors are practising safely and competently in our province."

Caulfield is concerned a growing portion of the public is embracing pseudo-science or what he calls "quackademics."

Websites promise natural cures for everything from attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder to mental illness to cancer. They urge people not to underestimate the powers of Mother Nature.

Caulfield says individuals can not only find information that backs their own personal beliefs online, but entire cyber communities that agree with them.

"When you start insulting and say there's no evidence to support homeopathy, there's no evidence to support these kind of whole remedies — you're not just insulting the practice — you're insulting the individual. It becomes part of their belief system."

Caulfield says it isn't easy to get people to change.

"When people are faith-based, which so many of these practitioners really are and so many people that use this, they can't change their mind, because then they're losing part of their identity package.

"They're losing part of who they are."

Caulfield wants a national dialogue about what he calls pseudo-science.

"It's almost like there's this strange, pseudo-science correctiveness … that stops us from talking honestly about what these guys provide."