Wasif Hussain is an Adult Neurology Resident PGY-5 at the University of Alberta
Hearing about last week's Alberta court ruling against David and Collet Stephan regarding the failure to provide necessaries for life for their toddler son who died from bacterial meningitis in March 2012 left me with really strong, mixed emotions. This is something that we deal with as physicians so frequently and something that I am never able to quite get my head around. I am deeply saddened that this poor child has died from a completely preventable and treatable disease. I'm sad for those poor parents who lost their young child, doing what they thought was right (regardless of how wrong they may have been). I'm sad that even though it is clear from the testimonials that they had so many warnings that something was wrong, from the severe meningismus their child suffered on the way to the naturopath to the possible partial seizures described days earlier. Yet, their mistrust of the medical system made them wait until he was in cardiopulmonary arrest to call 911. I'm sad that this issue has become a problem of epidemic proportions that affects so many people, including many of whom are near and dear to me. So much so that many trust Internet forums and unqualified "professionals" over their doctor.
At a time like this, it is important for us as physicians to reflect. There is plenty of blame to go around. Part of that lies with the medical system for not doing better. For not stopping the mistrust that has spread to so many of our patients. It falls on those physicians who have placed finances and other gains ahead of the needs of our patients. Part, also lies with those who attempt to profit off of this mistrust by making false claims of "natural cures" and miraculous treatments to treat conditions that we all know well have no cure (currently). But part, as in this sad case, also lies with the general public. For in the end it is up to the individual to decide what is best, no matter how hard it may be to understand. It is important to weigh information, from qualified sources and make the best judgement.
We as a society have allowed this to go too far. I really hope that this case brings the issue to light at a governmental/policy level. The first step is to deal with those directly responsible for this tragic loss. I applaud the efforts of a number of physicians across this country who have asked the CNDA (College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta) to launch an inquiry. But beyond this step, we must look to build bridges and need to have better coordination between medical and alternative health care. We need regulation of alternative medicines both in regards to "supplements" and "treatments". We need to have more liability for what is published and propagated to people. I'm sure we will all agree that there is a role for natural medicines, as medical literature has shown some benefits through clinical trials with certain treatments, such as the use of acupuncture to treat migraines.
When a child dies like this, under these circumstances, something needs to be done.