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Ontario naturopathic prescribing proposal is bad medicine

Two weeks ago, Canadian Skeptics United published on their Skeptic North site a piece by an Ontario pharmacist criticizing a proposal by the province to grant limited prescribing rights to naturopaths. The essay, which was reprinted in the National Post on Tuesday, outlines the intellectual and practical conundrum presented by allowing those with education that diverges from science-based practices to prescribe drugs.

The naturopath lobby came out in force and was relatively unopposed in the 54 comments that followed, primarily because the NP closes comments 24 hours after online posting. Therefore, those with a more rational and considered viewpoint based in facts were locked out from commenting. This is quite disappointing to me personally and professionally because of the wildly emotional appeals, strawman arguments, and smears and attacks on the author himself without, of course, addressing his well-founded criticism of the prescribing proposal before the provincial government.

At the Skeptic North post, the piece even drew a naturopath who equated the criticism of his/her field with the Nazis and Mussolini. However, you can’t write critiques of these practices without attracting attacks ad hominem, especially Godwin’s Law, that are the resort of those whose arguments are logically flawed.

Naturopathy, sometimes called naturopathic medicine, is an unusual and inconsistently regulated alternative medical practice that co-opts some evidence-based medicine, often in nutrition and natural product medicines, but also subscribes to “vitalism” (vis medicatrix naturae) and makes use of homeopathic remedies that defy the rules of physics and dose-response pharmacology.

Naturopathy is, however, a warm and fuzzy term, especially when equated with “natural medicine” and the fact that people with naturopathy degrees advertise themselves with the honorific of “Dr.” The increasing popularity of naturopathy is also supported by cultural influences. I’ve written elsewhere that many, uh, natural product enthusiasts have become interested in naturopathy following the relocation of musician Dave Matthews from Charlottesville, VA, to Seattle, WA, where his wife, Ashley Harper, earned a naturopathy degree at Bastyr University.

In addition to the description of the practice in the NP op-ed, an excellent review and critical analysis of naturopathy by SBM’s Kimball C Atwood IV, MD, can be found at Medscape General Medicine. The abstract is as follows:

“Naturopathic medicine” is a recent manifestation of the field of naturopathy, a 19th-century health movement espousing “the healing power of nature.” “Naturopathic physicians” now claim to be primary care physicians proficient in the practice of both “conventional” and “natural” medicine. Their training, however, amounts to a small fraction of that of medical doctors who practice primary care. An examination of their literature, moreover, reveals that it is replete with pseudoscientific, ineffective, unethical, and potentially dangerous practices. Despite this, naturopaths have achieved legal and political recognition, including licensure in 13 states and appointments to the US Medicare Coverage Advisory Committee. This dichotomy can be explained in part by erroneous representations of naturopathy offered by academic medical centers and popular medical Web sites.

Like many alternative practices, naturopathy claims to harness the body’s own healing power as if differentiating that fact-based medicine does not also employ the body’s capacity to heal. The very same drugs that naturopaths wish to prescribe are those which can only work because they interact with targets in the body for which our endogenous compounds already act.

It seems to me that naturopathy adopts either science-based medicine or pseudoscience depending on the venue in which it serves the organization.

Because of my oft-expressed love of Canada, I had always thought that our neighbors to the north were more rational and had more finely-tuned critical thinking skills than we in the United States. However, I learned from the op-ed that British Columbia has already given prescribing rights to naturopaths.

I’m really surprised about this because of the furor that erupts whenever a proposal comes up to confer limited prescribing rights to pharmacists. Having taught in US colleges of medicine and pharmacy, I can state confidently that pharmacists have roughly four times the pharmacology and therapeutics coursework of physicians (albeit with not nearly as intensive postgraduate training). With the Doctor of Pharmacy degree firmly established as the entry-level pharmacy degree, pharmacists are now participating with physicians to gain practical clinical training in specialty areas.

But even with this extensive training in the same environment, legislated pharmacist prescribing is extremely limited worldwide. I remember it being a monumental achievement when my former PharmD student became the first pharmacist in the state of Arizona to have earned limited prescribing rights.

Therefore, I am amazed that Canadian politicians and health authorities are lending support to naturopath drug prescribing.

Another major challenge of this proposal relates to medical liability, an issue that seems to have been ignored previously but is articulated nicely in the NP op-ed:

A key role of the pharmacist is to double-check the safety and appropriateness of a prescribed drug. When required, the pharmacist resolves drug related problems with the prescriber. This is only possible because pharmacists, physicians, and nurse practitioners work from a common, science-based understanding of drugs and disease. In contrast, naturopaths may not share this science-based approach to illness, and may rely on references that are unknown to, inconsistent with, or directly contradict the medically accepted standard of care. If naturopaths prescribe a drug based on a naturopathic belief system, and a pharmacist determines that the prescription is not appropriate from a scientific and evidence-based perspective, what will the pharmacist’s responsibility be? Will pharmacists be held liable for prescriptions written by naturopaths who do not share a science-based view of illness?

Here’s a question, though: if the legislation moves forward, could pharmacists refuse to fill a prescription from a naturopath the same way that some states allow for “conscientious objection” by pharmacists for filling emergency contraceptive prescriptions?

I also wonder why pharmaceutical companies have not gotten involved in this debate. Corporate liability is also likely to be influenced as improper prescription of drugs is bound to increase the number of reported adverse reactions.

Nevertheless, the bill is moving forward:

The Bill passed second reading and was referred to the Standing Committee on Social Policy. Several naturopath organizations were on the agenda, and argued for “unambiguous authority for prescribing, compounding, dispensing or selling a drug as designated in the regulations” – essentially a clause that will allow naturopaths gain access to prescription drugs, developing a list out of the public eye. The standing committee accepted this request (the revisions may be viewed here [PDF]), and put naturopath prescribing into Bill 179. Third reading is expected sometime this fall. If it passes, the right for naturopaths to prescribe drugs will become entrenched in Ontario law.

The legislation of quackery presents a major threat to public health, pure and simple.

A rebuttal from two naturopaths has now appeared at the National Post. Therein, the typical distancing from science-based medicine is claimed while concomitantly arguing that naturopathy is based in science, followed then by excoriation of the randomized, controlled clinical trial. The typical chesnuts of distinction are invoked such as recognizing the healing power of the body, individualized patient care, and focus on disease prevention – all of which science-based medicine employs no matter how it is spun. One cannot simultaneously claim to embrace and reject science, yet this is done in the NP rebuttal. The responses are much more reasoned including an especially superb point-by-point comment by “steveisgood” (the page doesn’t provide unique URLs for each comment so you’ll have to scroll down by hand).

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