Consumer Reports on naturopathy

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I was pleasantly surprised to see that a new article on naturopathy in Consumer Reports largely resists the temptation to engage in false balance. While it doesn’t come right out and say you shouldn’t waste your money, the article, by Consumer Reports’ Lead Investigative Health Reporter Jeneen Interlandi, is pretty damning.

If I had known who Jeneen Interlandi is, I might not have been so surprised. She writes the Science and Story blog, has master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism, and, according to her blog bio, reports on “snake oil medicine and the (de)regulatory state.”

The article starts off sounding pretty neutral, but right out of the gate it smashes one of the most frequent naturopath talking points (emphasis added):

Among the most controversial healthcare professionals you might run into these days are those who practice what’s known as naturopathic medicine.

That approach to healthcare is based on the belief that the human body possesses “an inherent self-healing” ability, according to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Naturopathic practitioners resist drugs and surgery, relying instead on giving patients lots of attention and personalized advice, and turning to a variety of “natural” or “holistic” treatments.

Those include approaches—such as changes in diet, exercise, and lifestyle—that medical doctors (M.D.s) and doctors of osteopathic medicine (D.O.s) also often embrace.

The trope that conventional medicine only treats symptoms, in contrast to naturopaths’ more holistic approach, is entrenched dogma among naturopaths and other advocates and practitioners of ‘alternative’ or ‘integrative’ medicine. It’s also complete nonsense. There’s nothing holistic about taking a homeopathic preparation of onion for a cough, and conventional doctors have been advising patients to eat better, get more exercise, and avoid stress for longer than I’ve been alive.

The article discusses the difference between naturopathic doctors and unlicensed naturopaths, as well as attempts to legislate an expansion of what N.D.s are allowed to do. In a section subtitled “Dubious science,” it addresses the evidentiary failures of many naturopathic treatments:

The problem, [University of Alberta professor of health law Timothy] Caulfield says, is that many of their treatments aren’t evidence-based…Homeopathy, for example, is based on the notion that tiny doses of a toxin can cure certain medical conditions. (Drinking small doses of pollen dissolved in large quantities of water to cure a pollen allergy, for example.) But a large and growing body of research has found that homeopathy doesn’t work any better than a placebo, or sugar pill.

Some critics say that even less contentious parts of naturopathy tend to be steeped in pseudoscience. “No one disagrees that diet and lifestyle are important,” says Michael Munger, M.D., president of the AAFP [American Academy of Family Physicians]. “But a lot of the specifics naturopathy offers are bogus.”

The article concludes with a section subtitled “Proceed with caution”:

If you’re considering naturopathic medicine, think twice. First, talk with your primary care doctor. If your goal is to improve your health through diet, exercise, or other lifestyle changes, your M.D. or D.O. may well be able to help just as well.

If you opt for naturopathic medicine anyway, be skeptical of claims that it’s safer, more natural, or less profit-oriented than conventional medicine.

Remember that while N.D.s have more formal medical education than naturopaths, neither practitioner is as rigorously trained as an M.D. or a D.O.

And keep in mind that most naturopathic treatments are usually not covered by insurance, so you’ll most likely have to foot the bill yourself.

The author sticks to a traditional journalistic format, taking a neutral tone and quoting experts from both sides. But she avoids the trap of false balance by evaluating their arguments and the evidence that supports them, something that too few journalists bother to do. Finally, she concludes that one side is making bad arguments and that their claims should be treated with skepticism. She synthesizes, in other words. This is how you do it.

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