New Brunswick

Naturopaths can't suggest they're 'medically trained,' New Brunswick judge rules

Naturopaths who describe themselves as "medically trained" or as "practising family medicine" may mislead the public, Justice Hugh McLellan ruled Tuesday.

10 naturopaths, 3 clinics named in application by New Brunswick College of Physicians and Surgeons

Lawyer John Barry, who represented the New Brunswick College of Physicians and Surgeons at Tuesday's hearing, said the issue isn't about allowing naturopaths to practise but about allowing them to use terms that suggest conventional medical training. (Brian Chisholm / CBC)

Naturopaths in New Brunswick cannot advertise themselves as "medically trained," a New Brunswick judge ruled on Tuesday.

The New Brunswick College of Physicians and Surgeons had sought an injunction to stop naturopaths in Moncton, Fredericton and Miramichi from using terms such as "medical practitioner" and "family practice" to describe themselves or their services.

The New Brunswick Association of Naturopathic Doctors defines naturopathy as "therapeutic methods" that support the body's own healing ability. Naturopathy encompasses methods like herbalism, homeopathy, acupuncture, nature cures, and traditional Chinese medicine.

20 practising in New Brunswick

All licensed naturopathic practitioners — of which there are about 20 in New Brunswick — complete a minimum of three years of university level, pre-medical training, then four years at an accredited naturopathic medical college.

"There are a lot of under-qualified naturopaths who call themselves naturopaths," said naturopathic practitioner Nicole Basque. "I would wager those are in the hundreds."

Naturopathic physician Nicole Basque said there are approximately 20 naturopathic practitioners in the province, but many more who are under-qualified people call themselves naturopaths. (Guillaume Aubut/ CBC)

Although naturopaths are professionally regulated in other Canadian provinces, they remain unregulated in New Brunswick.

"The college has no interest in preventing naturopaths from doing what they do," said lawyer John Barry, who represented the College of Physicians and Surgeons in the application.

"We don't want to regulate naturopathy. They're entitled to practise — as naturopathy."

"But if it appears to the public that they are separate but equal alternatives to conventional medicine, that is why we are here today."

'Your cancer is all gone, it's better'

Ten naturopaths and three naturopathic clinics were named in the application by the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the body responsible for licensing physicians and monitoring standards of medical practice.

Some of the naturopaths advertised themselves online as "doctors" or in "general family practice," and as specializing in the treatment of certain illnesses including angina, cancer and diabetes.

All licensed naturopathic practitioners complete a minimum of three years university level pre-medical training, then four years at an accredited naturopathic medical college. The profession is not regulated in New Brunswick. (Guillaume Aubut/ CBC)

After the motion was filed July 27, six of the naturopaths amended the wording of their websites and online ads.

Dr. Ed Schollenberg, registrar with the college, said in an interview with CBC News that there has been a "creep" in the language that naturopaths use to describe their services, which has the potential to mislead people who are ill and "in desperation."

Naturopaths are not medical practitioners and naturopaths are not allowed to use words to suggest that they are.- Court of Queen's Bench Justice Hugh McLellan

"They're dealing with cancer, chemotherapy … and people will try anything," Schollenberg said.

"Some of them have been told, 'Well, your cancer is all gone, it's better,'

"There's no way you could just say it by looking at people or examining them most of the time. These people have stopped with the treatment they were getting, and then some have died."

'No hint' of public being misled

Lawyer Nathalie Godbout, who represented all of the naturopaths named in the application, with the exception of Frank Ndayahoze, disputed that assertion in court. 

"There's not even the slightest hint of evidence that anyone has been misled — or worse, harmed," she said. "This mythical patient that has to be protected by naturopathic doctors — I haven't met them yet."

Further, terms like "family medicine," Basque said, "refer to the fact that I treat all ages, from a newborn to an elderly person, not that I am a general practitioner or an MD. There is nowhere on my website that says that."

Naturopathy encompasses methods such as herbalism, homeopathy, acupuncture, nature cures and traditional Chinese medicine, but not all patients would understand the difference between a naturopath and a conventional doctor, the regulatory body argued. (Guillaume Aubut / CBC)

The discussion of what terms naturopaths are legally entitled to use should "bring to light … that this is a complementary form of health care in New Brunswick," Godbout said.

"There can be more than one source of primary care in health care."

"If there's something that shows up in their clinic that is outside [a naturopath's] scope of practice, I see no evidence before this court that they would not be sent to a person who can help them."

"They are part of a constellation of individuals who are delivering medical care to people."

Risk of misleading patients

In an oral decision, Justice Hugh McLellan said the justification for naturopaths using terms such as "doctor" and "family physician" are based on the assumption that "people are attuned to the meaning of words like "naturopathy."

Many patients might read a website or a Facebook ad out of context, he said, and fail to pick up on the difference between "a doctor listing his or her qualifications as 'Dr. So-and-So, B.Sc., MD,' as opposed to the listing that might include 'B.Sc., ND [naturopathic practitioner].'"

"I see a risk here," McLellan said, "that the words … could, in fact, imply or be designed to lead the public to believe these various naturopaths are entitled to practise medicine."

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Hugh McLellan ruled that the words used by some naturopaths 'could, in fact, imply or be designed to lead the public to believe these various naturopaths are entitled to practise medicine.' (CBC)

The naturopaths whose descriptions were found to violate the New Brunswick Medical Act will not be fined, nor will the New Brunswick College of Physicians and Surgeons seek legal costs.

"But we can tell them what they can call themselves," Schollenberg said.

The law in New Brunswick is clear, according to McLellan.

"In this province, naturopathy has no legal status," he said.

"Naturopaths are not medical practitioners and naturopaths are not allowed to use words to suggest that they are."

About the Author

Julia Wright is host of Information Morning Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.

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