White Coat Black Art

Naturopathy goes mainstream: What's the harm?

Naturopathy has been called pseudo-science and outright quackery by its harshest critics. Yet more of us are visiting naturopaths for everything from common-sense nutrition advice to more fringe treatments such as IV therapy. And now, mainstream medicine is embracing it too. This week Dr. Brian Goldman looks at naturopathy's move to the mainstream in Canada, and asks, "What's the harm?"
(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
At Brampton Civic Hospital, you'll find the only naturopathic clinic that's inside the sliding glass doors of a major Canadian hospital.
The Brampton Naturopathic Teaching Clinic is the first naturopathic clinic to be located within a Canadian hospital.

It's part of a growing move to integrate natural medicine into the mainstream - and it's being driven by the 70 per cent of Canadians who regularly use what are called complementary and alternative therapies.

This integration embraces the idea that we can have better health outcomes by joining pharmaceutical drugs, MRIs and invasive procedures with herbal medicines, vitamins, massage, acupuncture, special diets and even homeopathic remedies. 

Jonathan Tokiwa, Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine and Lead Supervisor at the Brampton Naturopathic Teaching Clinic at Brampton Civic Hospital says most of the 700 patients the clinic sees each month have the kind of typical chronic problems that doctors see all the time: diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, arthritis and digestive problems. 

"What we do is we work in conjunction with their conventional medical treatments," says Tokiwa. "We offer natural therapies that can support what they are doing to either further relieve some of their symptoms or even address some of the side effects that they might be experiencing."
Dr. Jonathan Tokiwa, Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine Lead Supervisor, Brampton Naturopathic Teaching Clinic at Brampton Civic Hospital

This bustling clinic is a prime example of where naturopathy sees its future - as part of the mainstream. It's also an example of a new attitude that sees Western medicine embracing the integration of naturopathy. 

That's troubling to University of Alberta health law policy expert Tim Caulfield, one of naturopathy's harshest critics "I guess my biggest issue is that most of the stuff that these clinics provide is completely science-free. We're talking homeopathy, detoxification, ionic foot baths. This is scientifically ludicrous. I think that's really problematic."

Dugald Seely, a naturopathic doctor and founder of the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre, thinks the critics are missing the big picture. He sees great promise in integrating naturopathy with mainstream medicine. He's launching a 10-year study to see if natural remedies improve survival and quality of life in patients with cancer. "I see the critics as not necessarily focussing on the things that are more important from a public health standpoint," he says.

"Many of our patients are already seeking natural health care," says Dr. Naveed Mohammad, Brampton Civic Hospital's VP of Medical Affairs. He says bringing naturopathy into the hospital fold will yield public health benefits.  "We were always challenged that patients would show up in our ER and have a list of medications and then say, oh by the way I'm also on three other naturopathic medications."

Dr. Brian Goldman, host of White Coat Black Art says that naturopathy is personal choice people are free to make, but "the choice should be an informed one - that's they way you avoid possible harm. And that means naturopathic doctors who want respectability with the public and integration with physicians and hospitals need to earn it by embracing scientific proof of what they do."

We asked the College of Naturopaths of Ontario to be on the program to talk about the role they play in regulating naturopathy in the country's largest province and about some specific questions posed in this article by the Globe and Mail's Carly Weeks, who we interviewed for our program. They declined. But they did send us this statement.