Evidence or not: alternative health makes inroads into public system

Alternative health treatments are making their way into hospitals and universities, but not all health professionals support the idea.

Epidemiologist warns against legitimizing reiki, naturopathy and other treatments

Jennifer Miriguay, a breast cancer patient, receives acupuncture alongside conventional cancer care. (CBC)

With every poke of her acupuncturist's needle, breast cancer patient Jennifer Miriguay says her pain begins to melt away.

"You can just start to feel a calmness and just a serenity that you hadn't felt prior to coming into a session," she said.

Miriguay turned to acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine after her breast cancer returned, despite aggressive medical treatment.

The public is clamouring for this kind of care, and we also need to do the research alongside of it.- Dugald Seeley, naturopath

"With a Stage 4 diagnosis, there's no Stage 5. The rules of the game have changed. My game plan needs to change," she said.

The alternative therapy Miriguay receives at the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre complements chemotherapy and other conventional cancer treatments. The clinic offers cancer patients yoga, psychotherapy, naturopathic medicine, the Japanese healing touch technique called reiki and intravenous vitamin therapy, among other paid services.

Although many of the treatments are not supported by scientific evidence, the clinic's services are in demand, according to naturopathic doctor Dugald Seely.

Research into efficacy of alternative treatments

"The public is clamouring for this kind of care, and we also need to do the research alongside of it," he says.

To that end, Seely is collaborating with his brother, thoracic surgeon Andrew Seely of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, in a study to determine whether or not natural remedies combined with conventional treatments improve outcomes for cancer patients.

Jonathan Tokiwa is a naturopathic doctor at the Brampton Civic Hospital. He says his patients often are reluctant to tell their regular physician they're seeking alternative care. (CBC)

Other major universities, such as the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the University of Toronto, and McGill University in Montreal are partnering with natural health practitioners to study the efficacy of alternative treatments and learn more about them.

Officials at Brampton Civic Hospital outside Toronto aren't waiting for the evidence. The hospital is offering the services of naturopaths and naturopathic students in a ward of the hospital that's otherwise unused in the evenings.

The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine is picking up the tab, so neither the hospital nor patients pay for the services, which include acupuncture.

These patients are essentially being fleeced out of their money.- Christopher Labos, cardiologist and epidemiologist

Naturopath Jonathan Tokiwa says the services are offered in the name of breaking down barriers between health care's two worlds.

"A lot of times, patients may be afraid of how they would be seen by their primary medical doctor. They may be afraid of the resistance that they might encounter because they are seeking complementary care," he said.

But there's a reason many physicians are resistant, according to cardiologist Christopher Labos. He says most alternative therapies have little more than a placebo effect.

Skeptic sees dangers in alternative therapies

As an epidemiologist who studies public health outcomes, Labos is an outspoken skeptic of alternative therapies. He says too often physicians don't mind if their patients seek unproven natural remedies because the treatments are usually considered harmless.

Dr. Christopher Labos is a cardiologist and epidemiologist. He's an outspoken critic of alternative medicine. (CBC)

"Scientists and the medical community have to take a stand, because these patients are essentially being fleeced out of their money," he said. "They're being sold products and services that don't actually work. For reiki to work, all that we know about the physical universe has to be untrue."

But the vice-president of medical affairs at Brampton Civic Hospital, Naveed Mohammad, defends partnering with alternative health care practitioners.

"What better way to try to see if there's any evidence out there for this type of medicine than to really work with them?" he asks.

Mohammad says there is an inherent risk in shunning natural medicine.

"What you don't want is some practitioner in some alternative medicine practicing somewhere in the corner without any light being shone on them, and I think that's the more dangerous way of doing things."

Still, Labos says promoting alternative health care hurts science-based medicine. He says he gets frustrated when he sees universities and hospitals continue to seek out collaboration with practitioners of disproven treatments, even if it's in the name of research.

"People get into medicine to make patients feel better," said Labos. "So, it's very seductive to say, "We'll give you reflexology; we'll give you massage therapy' we'll give you homeopathy.' But the problem is, by legitimizing stuff that doesn't work, you then dilute your own credibility."​


Vik Adhopia is a senior reporter with the Health Unit at CBC News. He joined CBC National Radio News in Toronto in 1995 and then began his coast-to-coast-to-coast journalistic odyssey, reporting from Iqaluit, Prince George, B.C., Vancouver, St. John's, N.L., and finally back to Toronto again.