Don't scrap college regulating traditional Chinese medicine, critics warn province

Ontario plans to dismantle the college that regulates Chinese medicine practitioners and acupuncturists, saying new legislation will allow more people to work in the field. But many practitioners oppose the bill, saying they weren't consulted.

Bill 88 would allow more people to work in the field, Ford government says

Mary Wu, left, and Heather Kenny, right, say groups are mobilizing to stop the provincial government from dismantling the college that regulates their profession. (Submitted by the Toronto School of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Heather Kenny)

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners are rallying against a bill proposed by the Ford government that they say would endanger patients and allow unqualified people into the profession.

They're reacting to Bill 88, recently tabled labour legislation that would, among other things, scrap the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario, which was established in 2013.

"There has been no consultation whatsoever on the part of the government that they were even considering this move," said Heather Kenny, president of Traditional Chinese Medicine Ontario, an advocacy group.

"We are absolutely doing everything we can to speak out against what's happened."

Traditional Chinese medicine involves techniques like acupuncture, herbal remedies, cupping, proper nutrition and Chinese massage. According to Kenny, the bill has been tabled at a time when these treatments are becoming increasingly popular in Ontario, with almost 2,800 practitioners each managing a caseload that ranges from 100 to 250 people.

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners use a number of treatments, including a combination of herbal medicine and acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, gua sha, and tui na. (Associated Press File Photo)

If the legislation becomes law, it would revoke all certificates of registration and authorization and scrap all active investigations into practitioners. Critics say patients and practitioners would no longer have a main regulatory body to submit complaints to.

The government says it's making the move because the current system shuts out prospective practitioners who speak only Cantonese or Mandarin, and it says other provincial bodies will oversee the profession. 

But Kenny says a coalition including thousands of practitioners, acupuncturists, educators and some of the country's biggest traditional medicine advocacy groups has come together to stop the plan. There is now a petition against the proposal that has about 25,000 signatures.

"We know that health care in Ontario is already incredibly stressed, and here we have this government removing viable options for health care."

'We want recognition'

As a practitioner with more than two decades of experience, Mary Xiumei Wu has pushed for regulation in Ontario and Canada since the mid-1990s and has joined the coalition to oppose the bill.

"We lobby to work with the government, the opposition, the politicians, [and] with our own people, trying to get our profession regulated," said Wu.

"We want recognition," she told CBC News.

Wu says traditional Chinese medicine is effective when used correctly but dangerous when used improperly. Cupping, for example, is said to promote blood circulation and relieve muscle tension but can lead to side effects like scars, burns, and infections. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

Wu, who is also the president and founder of the Toronto School of Traditional Chinese Medicine, says she's been fielding calls and emails from anxious students. She says the move would make programs offered by at least 15 Ontario-based schools unnecessary.

She also says under the proposed legislation, practitioners of Chinese medicine and acupuncture will be on the same level as tattoo artists and ear piercers.

"Our students are seriously affected," said Wu, adding people who want to study the discipline probably won't now "because their dream is to become a regulated, formal health care professional." Without the college, she fears patients will be more likely to get injured or have their ailments worsen.

Plan a 'direct attack' on Asian community: Del Duca

Health Minister Christine Elliott says the bill would put Chinese medicine practitioners under the Health and Supportive Care Providers Oversight Authority, which now regulates personal support workers. However, registration with the authority would be voluntary. She says acupuncturists will be monitored and regulated by the local public health agencies.

"We have confidence that they will do an effective job and that they will protect the interests of the people of Ontario," Elliott said at a news conference Thursday.

Premier Doug Ford says the plan to dissolve the college comes after consulting "many people within that sector" who wanted to address language barriers that block primarily Cantonese and Mandarin speakers from taking the required exams and getting certified.

"They were out of luck. And I don't think that's fair," said Ford.

But the premier also says the province won't change anything until it further consults practitioners and other stakeholders.

"Obviously, there's some concerns and we'll make sure we correct it," he said.

However, Green Party leader Mike Schreiner says tabling the bill without proper consultation is unacceptable.

"It's a disservice to the profession as a whole, and removes important protections for the public," Schreiner said in a news release.

Steven Del Duca, leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, pledged to roll back the move if his party forms the government after the provincial election in June.

Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca, seen here speaking in Mississauga, Ont., in March of 2020, has vowed to reverse the Ford government's move to dissolve the college if his party takes power after the June provincial election. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

"This was a direct attack on the Asian community, and especially the Chinese community, and Ontario Liberals will reverse it," he said in a news release.

Kenny says valid concerns around access, culture and language could be addressed within the college, and not by dismantling it. 

"I fail to understand how deregulation addresses those questions while keeping the public comfortable, safe and confident in their health care."

With files from The Canadian Press