One of the many bills that landed on Charlie Baker’s desk this week could pose a bit of a conundrum for the governor, a data-driven former health care executive. In the final moments of the last legislative session, the House passed a measure that would create a state licensing board for naturopaths, alternative medicine practitioners who for decades have sought the legitimacy that comes with state licensing.
If Baker signs the bill, Massachusetts would become the 20th state or city to license naturopaths, the Globe reported Friday. But that doesn’t mean it should. Although a licensing board might bring some order to the unregulated realms of alternative medicine, it could also open the door for naturopaths to push for private insurance coverage and Medicare reimbursement. That’s a troubling prospect on two fronts. Critics warn that some naturopathic advice is unproven scientifically (such as exercise routines that are tailored to blood type) and that lobbying efforts are funded partly by vitamin companies. And because licensing adds legitimacy to a wide array of alternative therapies, pressure for health insurance coverage is likely to follow. With health care premiums already soaring out of reach for many, the state needs to hold the line against new costs.
Some naturopathic treatments, like massage, have mainstream acceptance and offer comfort to those seeking pain relief or help coping with chemotherapy symptoms. But there is scant clinical evidence that many treatments are medically effective. Some are potentially dangerous. Homeopathic treatments based on plants or minerals — used by an estimated 5 million adults and 1 million children, according to a 2012 National Health Interview Survey — can cause adverse side effects or drug interactions, according to the National Institutes of Health.
While naturopathic schools train students in subjects like anatomy and physiology, critics like Britt Marie Hermes, a former practitioner, says her courses lacked the rigor of medical school. More bluntly, she adds: “Naturopaths are not doctors . . . they also want to practice essentially witchcraft.”
While a state licensing board might weed out dangerous practices, it would also put the state in the position of differentiating between good and bad pseudoscience. For now, any state recognition of naturopathy would be premature. It may be true that nonmedical approaches can complement modern health care. But far more rigorous study is needed. Fortunately, that’s already happening at the federal level. Funded by grants from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, researchers are undertaking rigorous clinical trials to explore stress-reduction techniques like meditation and nonpharmacological approaches to pain management. Until there are data to back up the broad claims made by naturopaths, Baker should veto the bill.