The Bloody Work of “Naturopathic Doctors” with Britt Hermes

Susan Gerbic

Britt Marie Hermes is a writer, scientist, and former naturopathic doctor who will be speaking at CSICon on Friday, October 27 at 11:30 a.m. Her lecture is titled “The Bloody Work of ‘Naturopathic Doctors.’”

Susan Gerbic: Hello Britt Marie. You seem to be everywhere these days, at least all the podcasts I listen to. I’ve heard your story several times and am looking forward to meeting you in person in Las Vegas at CSICon. Your story is so compelling; there is something about someone so involved in pseudoscience and then educating themselves out of that belief, and in your case becoming so outspoken about your past life. Can you please tell everyone your story?

Britt Marie Hermes: That form of pseudoscience was “naturopathic medicine.” Some people may not have heard of it because it’s been relatively obscure until the last decade or so. Now naturopaths are all over the place with detoxes, homeopathy, and a whole suite of “treatments” ranging from herbal enemas to intravenous injections of herbs and vitamins. They are also claiming that they are “medically trained.”

So, I was one of these “naturopathic doctors.” I went to a school near Seattle named Bastyr University, which told prospective students that its curriculum was “just like” medical school. It was a lot of work at times, but we spent it learning pseudoscience and magical theories that was mixed with just enough real medicine to make it believable. When I graduated in 2007, I fully believed I was a doctor. In Washington state, where I was first licensed, I was even legally allowed to call myself a physician.

In Arizona, where I practiced until 2014, I used the title “naturopathic medical doctor.” I had a Federal DEA number that allowed me to prescribe some controlled substances. In my practice, I commonly prescribed drugs and ordered tests like X-rays, MRIs, and blood work. These signifiers of medical legitimacy reinforced the fantasy that I was a doctor, but none of us have the right training to have any medical responsibility. There is also a political aspect. Naturopaths lobby state and federal lawmakers to have this medical responsibility and to self-regulate, which means self-protection to allow the quackery to go on.

Gerbic: I believe you were beginning to have doubts about your profession as a naturopath, but it was an unethical and, possibly, illegal incident that finally pushed you to leave. Is that correct?

Hermes: It was easy for me to brush off doubts while I was in practice. I had been doing it since my time at Bastyr. I remember finding critical information about naturopathy on websites such as Quackwatch or Science-Based Medicine. My response was to think those critics just didn’t understand. They didn’t know me or my philosophy.

I believed naturopathic therapies were inherently safe since they were “natural.” I thought that all alternative therapies, such as herbs, homeopathic substances, ozone gas, water, and other bizarre treatments you may cringe at, were effective because we were taught them in school. Why would the schools teach us treatments that didn’t work or that were dangerous? I was incredibly naive and, obviously, not a good critical thinker. I suffered from an appeal to nature, confirmation bias, and Texas sharpshooting.

My perspective abruptly changed after I discovered my former boss was importing and administering a non-FDA approved drug to cancer patients. This is a federal crime. Under my boss’s orders, I administered this drug to patients, and I still feel sick about it. I immediately confronted my boss and resigned. I reported my boss to the naturopathic regulatory board in Arizona. Then, I spoke with an investigator at the Attorney General. Afterward, I spoke with a naturopath and mentor who encouraged me to keep working with my former boss. He said this incident wasn’t a big deal; I was a naturo-path after all.

After this incident, I decided to critically comb through my naturopathic education documents. I examined the practices of my colleagues around the country. I quickly realized that my training at Bastyr was riddled with pseudoscience. I determined that naturopaths across the country were overwhelmingly using debunked, dangerous, or simply nonsensical treatments in their practices. This was the norm. My former boss was not the exception. The entire profession was rife with quackery. I could no longer be a part of it.

Gerbic: You first turned to naturopathy because you had a bad experience with a medical doctor. I understand that one main criticism of doctors is that they are brisk and arrogant and they over-prescribe. That hasn’t been my personal experience; just what I’ve heard from the alternative medicine community, that and the accusations that they are involved in Big Pharma. Naturopaths, I’m told, spend more time with their patients, get to know entire families, and use less “toxic” medications, often prescribing herbs and homeopathy. Is this your experience?

Hermes: As a naturopath, I was proud of the fact that I spent about an hour or more with each patient. I took detailed family histories and often counseled patients about emotional matters in their lives. I asked about every personal detail. I knew my patients very well. But, this extra time spent with them does not translate into better medical care. It is important not to confuse good bedside manner and an easy repertoire with medical competency. The issue is that naturopaths do not know what they do not know. They certainly do not know the sharp limits of their training, and with this confidence and quality time seeing patients, its easy to develop relationships that translate into recurring customers.

Gerbic: And a follow-up, if true, as someone who has seen both sides of this really important issue, what advice would you give to medical schools to improve training?

Hermes: All primary care providers, including physicians, nurse practitioners, and PAs, are trained to save lives and keep us healthy. I think they do a great job. Even though the healthcare system needs serious improvements, I think most of these practitioners are not contributing to the problem of hurting patient satisfaction. Naturopaths have an “in” because we are trained to connect with patients and make them feel like their concerns are fully heard. We take them seriously and with compassion. Medical schools and other training programs based in science should look at the science! We know there are better outcomes when doctors are nice, empathetic, and engage their patients. Maybe medical schools and others are already teaching this. Maybe it’s the system that’s the problem?

Gerbic: I think that skeptics are usually very compassionate people and understand that people who turn to alternative medicine do not deserve that treatment. We tend to act as consumer watch-dogs and demand that people get good value for their money. In other words, we want evidence that something actually works.  How have your thoughts evolved over time?

Hermes: I used to be afraid of skeptics. The support of this community helped me make a public change from quackery to science. I am grateful for this community. I could not have done it without them. Whereas before I was drinking the Kool-Aid, now I am deeply concerned with patients getting harmed. Naturopaths do not give proper informed consent. How is this possible for a treatment that has no basis in reality like homeopathy. If you don’t tell the patient: “This is a bottle of sugar pills that’s had magic water dripped over it that contains a dilution of 10-400 duck liver and heart. There is no reliable evidence that this works for anything, and the industry is not regulated,” then you’ve crossed an ethical line and should not be in practice. It goes for all bad treatments, and naturopathy is full of them.

Gerbic: You have a blog Naturopathic Diaries. Are you getting a lot of push back from the alternative-medicine community for that?

Hermes: The naturopathic profession seems to be threatened by my blogging. I frequently get emails from naturopaths asking me to stop speaking out. There are some zingers for sure, but for the most part, naturopaths and other natural medicine zealots say I am being too hard. They often claim not all naturopaths practice how I experienced. So, it’s now the “no true naturopath” fallacy.

Gerbic: Are you still in touch with the peers from Bastyr University or your instructors? Those must be some interesting conversations if so.

Hermes: I am occasionally in touch with a few naturopaths who support my work. These individuals would like to see significant changes made to the naturopathic curriculum and to the profession as a whole. There are actually a few internal divisions within the naturopathic community that fall along various ideological lines. But for the most part, they are almost exclusively rallied against me. Many naturopaths who do support my work are no longer practicing. A major fallout of my advocacy is that I am no longer in contact with my closest friends and mentors. They feel betrayed.

Gerbic: You will be speaking at CSICon this October. What do you have in store for us?

Hermes: Since CSICon is so close to Halloween, I wanted to do something spooky. My talk is titled “The Bloody Work of Naturopaths.” I will describe some of the most egregious examples of naturopathic malpractice that involve doing some procedures that no one should be doing.

Gerbic: Remember that CSICon will be having a Halloween party on Saturday night. The theme is 1970s Disco Party. I heard mention that it should be Zombie themed. Have you started learning the moves from Saturday Night Fever yet?

Hermes: To the max!

Gerbic: Really looking forward to meeting you in person, and I’m sure others will as well. New attendees to CSICon you will learn that all the speakers are very approachable and would love to talk about their area of expertise, and most will be attending the entire conference. Join the CSICon Facebook group to learn more about the after-hours socializing that makes these conferences extra special. And don’t forget your zombie costume.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.