The Alberta Party is calling on the province’s NDP government to restrict the practice of naturopathy in the province in light of the tragic death of 19 month old Ezekiel Stephan and the recent conviction of Stephan’s parents, David and Collet Stephan, of failing to provide the necessaries of life.
The leader of the Alberta Party, Greg Clark, has asked the government to consider changing the regulations governing naturopaths so as to restrict their ability to work with pediatric patients and to use the title “doctor” or the phrase “naturopathic medicine.”
“When the provincial government legitimizes practices that have a questionable basis in science, Albertans are put at risk,” says Clark, whose party currently has one seat in the 87 member legislative assembly.
“Where clear evidence based on rigorous scientific evaluation is lacking, as is the case with many naturopathic interventions, at best it is benign, at worst it directs people outside science-based medicine to potentially tragic consequences,” says Clark.
On April 26, a provincial jury in Lethbridge, Alberta, found David and Collet Stephan complicit in the 2012 death of their son who died of viral meningitis, a condition the Stephans treated with naturopathic remedies despite warnings from a neighbour who was a nurse and from a naturopath, both of whom advised that Ezekiel be taken to see a doctor.
“They definitely, definitely loved their son but as stated in our closing arguments, unfortunately sometimes love just isn’t enough,” said Crown prosecutor Lisa Weich. “Parents still have to follow a standard of care as set by criminal law.”
The Stephans will next appear in court on June 13th for sentencing. The maximum penalty for failing to provide the necessaries of life is five years in prison.
Alberta’s naturopaths received professional status in 2012 after more than a decade of negotiations, effectively creating the College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta, a self-regulating body that operates under the province’s Health Professions Act and gives practitioners the power to perform injections, minor surgeries, ear exams and some intravenous treatments.
Alberta naturopaths cannot prescribe drugs or order x-rays and are required to take three years of “pre-medical education” along with a four year accredited professional program. Over the past two decades other provinces in Canada have enacted similar regulatory colleges for naturopathy.
Both British Columbia and Ontario have regulatory bodies that grant naturopaths the ability to prescribe drugs for their patients.
A similar case came to light last year in Australia when a naturopath was charged with reckless grievous bodily harm and failure to provide for a child causing danger of death when her treatment of a baby boy left him severely malnourished and close to death. Despite its popularity -about 10 per cent of the population use naturopathic treatments- naturopathy is not yet a registered profession in Australia, with critics claiming that although regulation would put needed restrictions on who could call themselves a naturopath, the move would legitimize a scientifically unproven practice.
This position is echoed by Calgary bioethicist, Juliet Guichon of the Cumming School of Medicine, who says that the death of Ezekiel Stephan is a “wake up call” to the province over the regulation of naturopathy. “People who say naturopathy is an evidence based medicine have to come to grips that the child is dead and reconsider their views,” says Guichon.
Alberta’s Health Minister Sarah Hoffman has stated that the province is currently reviewing the regulations governing its naturopathic practitioners.