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March 26, 2014
Expanded powers for naturopaths sparks protests from doctors

New rules expanding the power of Ontario’s naturopaths to treat complex medical conditions and prescribe drugs have met with a powerful backlash from that province’s physicians and surgeons.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) and the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons have expressed concern about the “troubling” new powers now being proposed for naturopaths.

Under the proposed rules, naturopaths will be able to treat conditions such as HIV and Parkinson’s disease, prescribe medications to treat these conditions and order tests and other work from government-funded laboratories.  Naturopaths are not qualified to provide such care, the OMA asserts.

“Naturopaths, by definition, are not trained to provide medical care,” it said in a brief to the province.  “When the language [of the proposed regulations] strays from naturopathy into medical terminology and interventions, we must object based on the risk to patient safety.”

According to the OMA, the fact that physicians, surgeons and other mainstream medical professions follow a tested, scientific regimen in the course of patient treatment protects patients more than the treatments based on untested philosophies.

“Physicians and other health professionals of that sort follow the scientific paradigm,” says Canadian Medical Association Journal Deputy Editor Dr. Matthew Stanbrook.  “We accept treatments that are proven by scientific research.  For alternative medicine, that requirement isn’t there…”

The Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons echoed the OMA’s concerns, particularly when it comes to the prescribing of medications for some delicate or potentially dangerous conditions, such as pregnancy-induced high blood pressure.  

“Such treatment in a non-hospital setting is extremely dangerous, as the risk of seizure in the mother and death to both the mother and child is very high,” the College noted in its submission.

The newly formed transitional council of the Ontario College of Naturopaths counters that their profession plays an important role in the prevention, management and treatment of chronic diseases and should not be restricted from conducting diagnostic tests or recommending specific drugs or other substances to their patients.

“Naturopathic doctors reduce patient reliance on expensive pharmaceuticals and contribute to a reduction in unnecessary visits to emergency departments,” they argue.  “Restricting naturopathic doctors to schedules of substances or diagnostic testing will severely limit their ability to treat patients safely.”

While naturopaths and other practitioners of alternative medicine are regulated in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, the potential expansion of their responsibilities into areas formerly controlled only by licensed physicians and surgeons reflects growing popularity of such treatments among the public.

For benefit plan sponsors and administrators, the possible expansion of alternative medicine into physician-dominated areas of diagnostic testing and prescriptions could present a challenge.  

While Ontario and other provinces may support the expanded roles of naturopaths and other practitioners, group benefit contracts often specify that certain services and supplies must be accompanied by appropriate statements from licensed physicians. Until the contracts themselves are changed by plan underwriters to include alternative medical practitioners, claims adjudicators will likely question or decline prescriptions, tests, or other claims involving alternative medicine.

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