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Public editor: Homeopath’s advice needs to be balanced

Medical professionals say a homeopath’s blog missed the key advice that what really works is the flu vaccine.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Last Friday, a blog on natural ways to keep the flu at bay written by an alternative-medicine specialist garnered criticism on social media and in the story comments.

The blog suggested a variety of solutions that the writer, who has a diploma in homeopathic medicine, felt could either help to prevent contracting the flu or mitigate the symptoms. The blog was criticized by medical professionals on a number of points and most said it missed the key advice that what really works is the flu vaccine.

One public health physician-in-training wrote to me to say the article "makes a number of health claims regarding ways to prevent or treat the flu, but which lack any evidence to support them. Indeed, [the] … recommendations (such as the use of probiotics) …demonstrate a basic misunderstanding of what the flu is (a virus, not a bacteria).

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"As a member of the medical community, it concerns me when unfounded claims from Complementary & Alternative Medicine (CAM) providers are presented as fact and given legitimacy via publication. Incomplete or incorrect health information can produce very real harm, as it often prevents people from seeking out appropriate, evidence-based care (e.g. flu vaccine, antiviral medications)."

The physician's question was about The Globe and Mail's obligation in presenting health information.

It is an excellent question. Medicine is a science based on studies and factual observations, unlike, for example, politics, where it is important for media coverage to balance the different sides of a debate.

The Globe has published many articles on the importance of getting a flu vaccination. But if the paper chooses to run an article by a homeopath in addition to the articles by medical professionals, such as a doctor, nurse or pharmacist, the article needs to be seen in the context of who the writer is and what his credentials are.

The article properly sets Health Advisor in context, saying this is a blog where contributors share their knowledge. At the bottom in italics is an explanation of the credentials of the writer so that readers will see this person is not a medical doctor but rather an alternative-medicine expert.

However, in my view, the label Special to The Globe and Mail is not clear, as it is commonly used to indicate articles by freelance journalists.

It also would have been preferable to have the related links to the story balance the homeopath's advice with a medical professional's advice.

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The top three links were about learning to dream, outdoor fun and good germs. In my view, the top link should have been this article: "As a doctor, I've seen why vaccination is a 'no brainer.' "

I think there should be a bias toward medical professionals writing about medicine and, while there is room for some coverage on alternative or homeopathic treatments, care should be taken to always balance such coverage with a doctor's or other medical professional's experience and expertise.

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