The180·The 180

Former naturopathic doctor calls for an end to naturopathic pediatrics

A couple is on trial for failing to provide the necessaries of life, after treating their son with home remedies and naturopathy. The toddler died of bacterial meningitis. The case caught the eye of former naturopath Britt Marie Hermes - who says governments should block naturopathic pediatrics.

The parents of 19-month old Ezekiel Stephan are now on trial for failing to provide the necessaries of life after their son died of bacterial meningitis in 2012.

David Stephan, 32, and his wife Collet Stephan, 35, who have pleaded not guilty, are accused of allowing their meningitis-infected toddler to die four years ago after they tried home remedies and naturopathy

The Crown told court the couple loved their son and are not accused of ignoring or killing him, but argues they should have sought medical help sooner. 

The case has prompted former naturopathic doctor Britt Marie Hermes to call for an immediate block on naturopathic pediatrics by governments. 

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.

Former naturopathic doctor, Britt Marie Hermes, left the profession after she says she realized she was trained in a pseudoscience. ((Provided by Britt Marie Hermes))

Why should pediatric naturopathy be blocked? 

When governments license naturopaths to practice, it is in a sense a government endorsement. It's dangerous because there is a lot of rhetoric around the naturopathic education and training where naturopaths are claiming they receive the same medical education as medical doctors or doctors of osteopathy. In reality, naturopaths are not trained in the same way and they're being thrust out to practise as primary care doctors without the sufficient training to recognize dangerous diseases as bacterial meningitis. 

You actually did a pediatric specialty as a naturopath - what did it entail? 

My training entailed seeing patients for about 25 hours per week and most of my patients were children, but not all. For a naturopath to claim they have received a pediatric residency training, about 65% of their patient load needs to be children under the age of 18. But the training is nondescript and non specific. So unlike a medical doctor, where the training is regulated and the hospitals and universities ensure the doctors are seeing children with specific conditions, my pediatric training just involved seeing any child that walked through the door. 

You want the entire field of naturopathy to be regulated. What do you want to see? 

I'd like to see naturopaths not be allowed to use the term 'doctor' or 'physician.' The naturopathic universities in Canada and the U.S. are not regulated or endorsed by regular medical universities. They have their own separate accreditation system and so they really are operating outside the medical education system and in a way that eschews external criticism. This is specifically because naturopathic modalities and practices include non-standard medical therapies, and frankly, include dangerous therapies - therapies that have no absolutely no medicinal value whatsoever and no evidence or safety to support their use in clinical practice. 

What drew you to being a naturopath in the first place? 

I think like most people who are drawn to naturopathy, I had a bad experience with medical doctors. I was diagnosed with psoriasis as a teenager — an auto-immune and chronic condition — and I went and saw a dermatologist knowing that the treatment would be immunomodulators and steroids because my mum has this disease. After watching her struggle for years, I went to the dermatologist hoping for a different experience. I had many questions for him. I was asking him about diet or any other therapy that would improve my quality of life, and he didn't know anything. He was rushed, he handed me a prescription and walked out the door. I was distraught and I was looking for something more than a prescription in that moment. 

What drove you away [from naturopathy]? 

It all came crashing down for me when I started to really look critically and skeptically at what I was doing as a naturopath. In truth, I had used homeopathic medications on patients knowing that this may or may not work. Finding out that there was absolutely no scientific evidence to support the use of homeopathy was really an important light bulb moment for me. It was a really emotional and difficult decision, and along with this decision came the loss of being a doctor, which I thought I was. To come to the realization that not only was I inadequately trained, but that I had been trained in a bunch of pseudoscience was really hard to take, and depressing at times. 

People are obviously seeking an alternative. Is there a lesson to be learned for medical practitioners? 

Definitely. For the most part doctors assume that the patient is looking for a prescription to walk out that door with, and I needed a prescription, but I wasn't looking for a prescription. I was just looking for some sympathy or some empathy — I was a 16-year-old girl with psoriasis all over my body and my first concern was how am I going to wear shorts? I just needed him to take a moment with me, and tell me that he was going to work with me to help make it ok. I think that would have been enough. 

How optimistic are you that people are going to think twice about the things they think hold true about naturopathy? 

I have some optimism because naturopaths are not trained as real medical providers. The tricky piece is that when someone is pursuing naturopathic care under the assumption that their naturopath is medically qualified then they are making a choice that is not based on informed consent — they're walking into the naturopath's office thinking that there is an alternative remedy then this naturopath will know, but if they need to take real medication this naturopath will know too, and that's not true. 

Click the blue 'play' button to hear Britt Marie Hermes' conversation with Jim Brown.