Dispelling the Spin of Natural Medicine

My name is Drew Rouble, and I am a Canadian medical student at the University of Toronto (U of T). I am a proponent of consumer advocacy and the protection of patients from healthcare exploitation, specifically that caused by natural health or complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). There is considerable amounts of misinformation about CAM that confuses patients and medical professionals alike. To aid informed decision-making about CAM, I created NaturoFAQs.com as a resource to provide concise, simple, non-judgemental, and enjoyable summaries of the evidence (or, more frequently, lack thereof) behind natural medicine.

Dispelling the Spin of Natural Medicine

The need for consumer health advocacy

Many people have frequently-asked questions (FAQs) about natural health and CAM: “What is it? Does it work? Is it safe? What’s the evidence?”. By answering some of these natural health FAQs, NaturoFAQs aims to educate consumers and healthcare professionals about these products and practices.

NaturoFAQs is based on the highest-quality scientific evidence currently available: systematic reviews, randomized controlled clinical trials (RCTs), and clinical guidelines from major medical organizations. The website contains references to hundreds of these sources and reports what the best-available science says, without the spin of marketing agencies or organizations that profit from CAM.

My goal is to provide easily-understandable access to the science-based reality of natural medicine. I hope that by providing references to, and scientifically honest explanations of, the published literature examining CAM, patients can empower themselves to make fully informed decisions about their healthcare. If they understand what the evidence says about natural health practices, they may be less likely to fall victim to predatory marketing. The key is providing that information without judgement and with the best interests of patients in mind.

My motivation: filling an educational gap

Throughout my (admittedly minimal and ongoing) training, I have encountered something curious. Although medical trainees and practitioners know a lot about medical science, they sometimes know very little about medical pseudoscience, like naturopathy and other forms of CAM. That is perhaps an unsurprising revelation to some. Why should medical students and doctors be fluent in fringe-topics and unscientific practices? Well, in my humble opinion, failing to understand and advocate against such nonsense does a disservice to our patients.

As members of the medical profession, it is likely that my colleagues and I will encounter many patients that are interested in CAM. However, if a future patient asks for advice regarding this topic, a medical trainee will be confronted with a series of important self-reflective questions:

  • What do I actually know about CAM?
  • Can I ensure that my patient is fully informed with the facts before they make treatment decisions? (i.e., Do they have informed consent)?
  • Perhaps most importantly: Do I know enough to protect my patients from exploitation by natural health industry?

Medical school does very little to help us recognize health scams and to understand CAM practices from a scientific point of view. The consequence is that many medical students cannot confidently answer the above questions. Worse still, some students may be led to believe that such practices have scientific legitimacy. After all, if CAM is so popular, and many prestigious universities are researching it (including U of T, which is currently running a study to test homeopathy for children with ADHD), it must be legitimate, right?

This knowledge gap reflects actual conversations that I have had with some classmates. I have even had professionalism concerns raised against me by colleagues for providing reasonable criticism of the exploitative nature of some naturopathic practices. (Apparently, pointing out patient exploitation by naturopaths can “offend” some people.)

If future medical practitioners cannot accurately advise about popular CAM therapies—or worse, if they actively promote them—patients and consumers are doomed to rely upon profit-driven providers of natural medicine who, more often than not, conceal the whole story about their treatments or just don’t know any better. Likewise, if medical professionals do not speak out against unscientific treatments, or do not have informed knowledge on the matter, patients may be led to believe that their physicians either support such practices or do not care if their patients use them. Such an outcome is, in my still humble opinion, a failure of the medical profession to advocate for our patients’ right to ethical care, which depends upon fully informed consent.

I hope that NaturoFAQs can aid consumers and medical trainees alike in differentiating between dishonest marketing tactics and high-quality scientific evidence. If not, at least we can laugh at my attempt to get a rise out of my variously opinionated classmates.

(Drew Rouble’s opinions are his own. They do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Toronto. NaturoFAQs.com is not affiliated with the University of Toronto.)