Editorial: New Zealand should require naturopaths to be registered

Jane Norcross-Wilkins and Mike Malcolm pictured on their wedding day. The desperate couple had sought last-ditch help ...
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Jane Norcross-Wilkins and Mike Malcolm pictured on their wedding day. The desperate couple had sought last-ditch help from a naturopath before Jane died of cancer earlier this year.

EDITORIAL: Towards the end of her life, Jane Norcross-Wilkins endured a punishing and desperate regime of dietary supplements and pills, after she was told by her naturopath this would help her fight against breast cancer.

It wasn't true. The Auckland woman died last February, despite a last-ditch course of radiotherapy, after angrily breaking off contact with her therapist, whose reassurances had given way to indifference.

Norcross-Wilkins' husband, Mike Malcolm, said in a Stuff story published at the weekend that as part of her useless therapy, the unregistered naturopath charged $50 for melatonin that costs $12 elsewhere, and $140 for vitamin C caplets that cost $87 over the counter.

Sydney naturopath Marilyn Bodnar has pleaded guilty to causing danger of death to a child with her diet advice.
NICK MOIR/SMH

Sydney naturopath Marilyn Bodnar has pleaded guilty to causing danger of death to a child with her diet advice.

Norcross-Wilkins' cancer was considered terminal when she sought the treatment, so nothing would have saved her. But in her final couple of years she was charged thousands of dollars and plied with false hope.

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Meanwhile, in Australia, a court heard last week that a naturopath advised a breast-feeding mother to stick to a diet of raw vegetables, fruits and seeds if she wanted to cure her baby son's eczema. The baby was admitted to hospital gravely ill. The naturopath pleaded guilty to endangering him.

These are extreme cases of the risks people run with the "complementary and alternative medicine" industry, now believed to employ 10,000 people in New Zealand – 8500 of them as practitioners offering treatment to the public.

In fact, the phrase "alternative medicine" is intrinsically misleading. As the oft-quoted Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, has written: "There cannot be two kinds of medicine – conventional and alternative. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested, and medicine that has not; medicine that works, and medicine that may or may not work."

Naturopathy is one of those pseudoscientific medicines that may or may not work. It involves plying the patient with remedies aimed at boosting the body's natural ability to heal.

On one level, this seems to make sense. After all, we are what we eat. But it is unproven. And it can be dangerous if people stop seeing their doctors.

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A bigger danger lies in naturopaths claiming they can treat cancer – a claim sometimes inflated to something called "naturopathic oncology". Google it and you will possibly find websites devoid of real science, but showing reassuring photographs of people in white coats, wearing stethoscopes.

As the Cancer Society advises, there is no scientific evidence to support or prove claims that alternative medicines will cure cancer, or work better than conventional treatments.

Despite that, some people still swear by treatments such as naturopathy. Demand for complementary or alternative medicine is not going to go away.

Naturopathy is also enabled by tertiary institutes offering courses which are recognised by the official New Zealand Qualifications Authority framework.

This means that, even though anyone can claim to be a naturopath in New Zealand (there is no law stopping them), practitioners can arm themselves with diplomas and degrees and present themselves as equal to other health professionals.

That being the case, safeguards should be put in place for the public.

The most useful of these would be to require naturopaths to be registered, and made subject to similar disciplinary processes demanded of other health professionals when they can't make good on their promises.

 - Stuff

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