Alternative medicine is on the rise. Some studies say that one in four Canadians use alternative treatments at some point in their lives, while others claim that the figure is closer to 70%. Though the exact number is disputed, it is clear that the emergence of complementary medicine is having an impact on health care policy in Canada.
Alternative medicine is defined as any range of medical therapies that are not considered orthodox by the mainstream medical profession. Examples include homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and naturopathy. These therapies can be criticized because they are not rooted in the scientific evidence generally accepted by the medical community. Regardless, the increasing interest in alternative medicine raises questions for health care professionals and policy makers alike. Should the medical community be listening to evidence-based science or to the growing desires of patients?
On the conventional side of the debate, Ontario doctors are against the recognition of alternative health care in Canada. Alternative health professionals are now allowed to regulate themselves in certain provinces, which has raised concerns within the medical community. Many doctors believe that because their methods are not rooted in science, naturopaths, homeopaths, and acupuncturists are not capable of safely treating most chronic conditions.
Other health care providers disagree. A prominent Edmonton doctor has argued that alternative medicine should be part of mainstream treatment. Dr. Sunita Vohra thinks that doctors should be focusing on the needs of patients above all else: “If everything starts with a patient as the center of your primary interest, then their interests, their values, their questions are the things that need to matter to you most as their health care provider.” Basically, if patients are looking into these treatments, their doctors should be too.
If alternative medicine is so controversial, why are patients actively seeking it out? Part of the explanation could be a response to failures of mainstream medicine and the risks associated with some conventional treatments. For example, studies show that long-term antibiotic use can cause harmful side effects. A recent Harvard University study reveals that certain antibiotics can negatively affect the cells that supply the body with energy.
More commonly, patients are moving away from mainstream medications because they can cause unfavourable side effects, or are ineffective when it comes to treating certain ailments. For example, patients who suffer from chronic back pain often seek alternative treatments like acupuncture. Many people who experience psychological problems ranging from anxiety to autism turn to homeopathy. Other patients choose alternative medicine simply because it is less costly.
Whatever the motivation, we can’t deny the growing presence of complementary health care, and the questions it raises about the effectiveness of Canadian regulations on natural health products. On January 1, 2004, the Natural Health Products Regulations came into effect. The regulations state that all natural health products must have a product license to be legally sold in Canada. To get a license, applicants must provide certain information about the product including medicinal ingredients, source, dose, potency, non-medicinal ingredients, and recommended uses. These guidelines do not apply to health care practitioners who compound products on an individual basis.
The flexibility of the regulations could potentially pose a risk for some consumers A study done by the International Journal of Clinical Practice shows that some herbal supplements can cause complications when taken alongside prescription drugs. This is particularly true for those with chronic diseases like cancer.
CBC News recently covered a study conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph, which shows that many herbal products contain unlisted ingredients that may cause health risks. David Bailey, a clinical pharmacologist at the Lawson Health Research Institute, thinks this poses a very real problem. “These [products] are easy to get. They require no supervision from a health-care professional of any kind. You can (…) pick these things up and walk out without ever having discussed any of the issues that may be relevant,” he said.
To combat these concerns, there is a more comprehensive option that is often overlooked. A blended approach to health care in Canada means combining the principles of conventional and alternative medicine. Alternative practices would be integrated into the mainstream medical system rather than having two opposing health sectors. For governments, this means collaborating with consumers, manufacturers, and the scientific community to develop safer and clearer standards of practice.
If alternative health products are not only inevitable but also potentially harmful, the government must pursue an integrated approach. We need to favour regulation that combines science-based research, effective regulation, and the growing needs of patients. Instead of exercising complete resistance, the medical community should be focusing on a more inclusive model. This will help to protect both Canadian patients’ interests and their safety.
Delaney Cummings is currently pursuing her Certificate in Freelance Writing from the University of Toronto. She has a BA (Hons) in Sociology from the University of Western Ontario. Her policy interests include mental health care, education, and foreign policy.