Monday, November 21, 2011

Don't Muzzle Our Doctrors

Last summer, the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons published a draft proposal on Non-Allopathic (Non-Conventional) Therapies in Medical Practice. It was horrible. As I noted at the time, "The document is flawed from the beginning because it gives credence and respectability to "alternative medicine," otherwise known as non-evidence based medicine or quackery" [Non-Allopathic (Non-Conventional) Therapies in Medical Practice].

Many groups took notice of the draft policy and criticized the Ontario College of Physicians Surgeons for their gutless response to a serious crisis in health. One of those groups was the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism, a committee of Canada's Centre for Inquiry [Media Advisory: Ontario Doctors Given the Green Light to Promote Quackery]. The members of CASS worked hard to lobby for changes and they co-ordinated their activities with several other groups that are opposed to the weak-kneed position of the College.1 The College conducted a survey of its members and discovered that 78% of them opposed the draft policy. About one third of the people who filled out the survey were directed to the site by CASS or its allies [Skeptical Activism Sends a Message to CPSO. Very impressive.

Those behind-the-scenes activities had an impact as more and more people voiced their criticism on the FeedBack Site.

All this lobbying convinced the Toronto Star newspaper that something serious was afoot and yesterday, Sunday Nov. 20, 2011, the newspaper published an editorial that sides with science [Don’t muzzle our doctors]. The paper deserves praise for getting it right and giving us hope that science will win in the end..
Patients walk into allergist Dr. David Fischer’s office almost every day expressing interest in trying “natural” therapies. These range from harmless diet changes to the truly bizarre, like applied kinesiology, says the Barrie physician. It’s an experience shared by other doctors. “We’re on the front line of dealing with ideas for which there is often a dearth of scientific evidence.”

Alternative medicine is booming even without much proof it works. A record 20,000 people are expected at Toronto’s Whole Life Expo at the downtown convention centre next weekend. Three-quarters of Canadians regularly use some form of natural health product, opening their wallets to spend at least $4.3 billion yearly. And the herbs and homeopathic tinctures they buy are just one facet of unconventional medicine — a thriving sector encompassing everything from acupuncture to zone therapy (supposedly stimulating the body’s organs through hand or foot massage).

Ontario’s College of Physicians and Surgeons is bending to the trend with a new policy inhibiting doctors’ criticism of unconventional therapies. In doing so it risks encouraging even broader use of dubious and potentially harmful treatments.

Make no mistake — blind trust in alternative cures can be dangerous. An unknown number of Canadians are opting out of science-based medicine to treat even deadly conditions, like cancer, with unproven “natural” approaches.


The field of allergy medicine, Fischer’s specialty, is especially prone to alternative approaches. Natural practitioners using applied kinesiology, for example, check for allergy by placing a food item in a patient’s mouth or in their hand. Then they pull down on the person’s free arm to assess its strength. If this “muscle testing” shows notable weakness, the patient is deemed to be allergic.

There is no good evidence that this method works, and no sound scientific reason why it should. Yet patients come in with an interest in that, says Fischer. “I’d like to be able to tell them it’s quackery.”

He may not be in a position to say so much longer under a new policy proposed by the college of physicians and surgeons. It states that doctors are obliged to give a patient their best professional opinion on an alternative treatment goal or decision, but physicians “must refrain from expressing personal, non-clinical judgments.”


There’s no denying alternative medicine is immensely popular. Patients are more independent than ever before, often researching their illness and trusting their own solutions. And a host of unconventional “natural” healers has risen capitalizing on that trust — offering unproven therapies with little validity and which, in some cases, are a menace.

The college shouldn’t seek to accommodate that trend or retreat to a neutral corner. Rather it should leave doctors free to punch hard against those peddling dubious cures and to challenge people’s comforting, but irrational, beliefs. Science-based medicine serves patients best. If doctors can’t vigorously defend it, who will?

1. I'm a member of CASS but I had nothing to do with this campaign.

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