Accessing alternative health care

Did you know?

All practitioners who provide alternative health care are regulated and licensed.
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When it comes to your health care, you want to make decisions that are best for you. Among your options are the many varieties of alternative health care. But there are certain things to be aware of if you go that route. There can be implications for quality control, whether your treatment will be covered by health insurance, and what recourse you have if something goes sideways.

What you should know

You have the right to choose your treatment

"A few weeks ago, I pulled my back doing laundry. I faithfully followed my doctor’s advice: rest, ice, compression. But my back is still killing me: it hurts to move or even stand up. Even though it feels scary, I’ve decided to try acupuncture. A friend raves about how it’s helped him, and I really want to get back to my old self."

– Henry, Victoria, BC

Under BC law, you control your health care decisions. You have the right to choose the treatment and care you want. It may be conventional, alternative, or a mix of the two. 

What is alternative health care? 

Alternative health care is defined by what it isn’t — that is, it isn’t conventional health care. Conventional health care involves medical doctors, nurses, therapists and other long-established health care providers treating patients with drugs, surgery, or other standard treatments or medicine. Using chemotherapy to treat cancer or physiotherapy to treat back pain is conventional health care.  

Alternative health care — also known as allied health care — is any wellness or health care treatment that falls outside that description. It includes:

  • treatments that are growing in popularity such as massage therapy, chiropractics, yoga, and art and exercise therapy

  • alternative health care approaches that are based on the belief the body has the ability to heal itself, such as naturopathy and homeopathy 

  • culturally-based treatments such as acupuncture (based on traditional Chinese medicine) or the use of herbal medicines (grounded in, for example, Indigenous traditional healing)

  • natural health products such as vitamins, minerals, and probiotics

If you use acupuncture to treat nausea or headaches, that is alternative health care. So is using the natural health product St. John’s Wort to treat depression (as compared to using prescription medication).

Making an informed decision

Your health care provider must tell you about all reasonable treatment options within their practice area. You have the right to ask about alternative health care options if they aren’t mentioned. Regardless, your health care provider must tell you the associated risks and benefits of the treatments raised so that you can make an informed decision.   

For many people, the choice isn’t either/or — that is, it’s not conventional health care or alternative health care; it’s both. If someone strains a muscle in a fall, for example, they may take pain relief medication, and they may also get a massage from a therapist to help deal with the pain. Here, alternative health care might be thought of as “complementary” health care.

If you’re considering an alternative health care treatment, bear in mind that not all health care practitioners are regulated and licensed by a professional body. 

This heads up has two parts. First, it’s about whether the practitioner’s field of practice is regulated. Practitioners in some alternative health care fields are. Examples include naturopaths, massage therapists, and chiropractors. But others, like homeopaths and reiki practitioners, are not regulated.

The second part is about whether the specific practitioner is licensed to practice. Even in fields that are regulated, there can be rogue practitioners who aren’t properly licensed.  

Here’s why this matters. Regulated and licensed practitioners have to meet certain qualifications. They have to follow standards for patient care. And if they act in an unsafe or unethical manner, their professional body can take action against them. 

What this means for you as a patient is that treatments from an unregulated or unlicensed practitioner may be riskier and less safe. And if something goes wrong, there isn’t a professional body you can complain to. As with any health care practitioner, you could still sue them or take other steps (see below, under work out problems). But with no regulatory body to complain to, a key option to resolve problems is not available to you.

Check whether your practitioner is regulated and licensed

If you’re considering an alternative health care practitioner, find out whether they’re regulated and licensed by a professional body. This involves two steps.

  1. First, to find out whether they’re regulated, see if their field of practice is included on this list of regulated health professionals in BC.

  2. Second, to find out if they’re licensed and authorized to practice, from that same list, go to the website for the professional body in their field of practice and search the registry. For example, to find whether a naturopath is licensed, you’d search this registry of naturopaths.

Whether health insurance covers alternative health care treatments

In BC, many treatments are covered by the Medical Services Plan (MSP). This is the government health insurance program for eligible BC residents

MSP will cover the cost of medically required services provided by your family doctor and other health care professionals. These are known as medical benefits. These typically don’t cover alternative health care treatments.

For those who receive income assistance, disability assistance, or hardship assistance, MSP will also cover at least part of the cost of supplementary benefits. These include many services provided by alternative health care practitioners. Examples include massage therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and naturopathic treatments. 

If you aren’t sure whether MSP will cover the cost of the services you need, take a look at the BC government page about benefits

If MSP doesn’t provide coverage, check your private insurance policy (if you have one). Failing that, you’ll have to pay the full cost of your alternative treatment yourself. You might also consider asking your doctor or health care provider about other options that are covered by insurance.

If there are concerns about a natural health product

You’re in the majority of Canadians if you have used a natural health product to restore or maintain good health. Made from natural sources (most often plants), these products include vitamins, minerals, probiotics, herbal remedies, and homeopathic medicines. The multivitamin many take each day is but one example.

Under this law, natural health products have to be effective and safe to use without a prescription. Before a product can be sold in Canada, it must be reviewed and approved by Health Canada.

An ounce of prevention

If you’re considering a natural health product, you can find out if it’s properly licensed by searching the federal government’s licensed natural health products database.

When there are safety concerns about a health product, a recall will typically be issued. This is when the manufacturer, distributor or retailer — or the government acting with them or on its own — notifies consumers there are health or safety risks posed by a product. The federal government keeps an up-to-date list of all health product recalls and safety alerts.

On the other hand, an approved natural health product might not be safe for you to use. If you’ve had a bad reaction, you should contact your health care provider and report the unwanted side effect to Health Canada. The government keeps information about reported side effects in their adverse reaction database.

Work out problems 

There are steps you can take

If you’re concerned about the treatment you received or how a health care practitioner has treated you, you have options. What you can do depends in part on the type of treatment and practitioner involved. In all situations, though, there are steps you can take. 

Step 1. Talk with the health care practitioner 

Discussing your concerns directly with the health care practitioner could help stop the problem from getting worse. Or even resolve it altogether.

Step 2. Put your concerns in writing 

Write down details of what happened. Describe how the treatment or conduct affected you, who was present at the time, and what they saw, heard, and did. Take photos or videos of the conduct or the effect of the treatment you received, if possible. 

Now write a short version of your concerns, addressing it to the health care practitioner. Be clear as to what you’re asking them to do. Put the letter aside and sleep on it. Read it again, revise as needed, and once you feel it captures your concerns calmly and clearly, send it to the health care practitioner. 

If you haven’t been able to resolve things directly with the health care practitioner, consider contacting a lawyer to get legal advice. They’ll tell you what your legal options are. These may include making a complaint with the appropriate regulatory body (see the next step) or suing the health care practitioner. They can also include making a human rights complaint or contacting the police. It’s open to you to choose more than one of these options and pursue them at the same time.

The lawyer will also tell you about time limits, or how long you have to take certain steps. See who can help, below, for legal advice options.

Step 4. Complain to the practitioner’s regulator

If the problem remains unresolved, you can make a confidential complaint with the regulatory body for the health care practitioner — if there is one. To find out, see whether the practitioner’s field of practice is included on this list of regulated health professionals in BC. If it is, link to the website of the regulatory body. There you can search their registry to see whether the practitioner is listed. 

Making the complaint

Each regulatory body has its own process for handling complaints; this video explains the general process. A complaint must usually be made in writing, but you can ask about other options. It’s helpful to make it as soon as possible. If English is not your first language, ask a friend, family member, or community service agency for help. 

Here is how to make a complaint for some common types of alternative health care:

The result of your complaint

Once a complaint is made, the regulatory body can investigate. In serious cases they might hold a hearing. They can (among other steps) require the practitioner to take further training, reprimand them, or suspend their license. 

Be aware that the regulatory body can’t pay you any money, or order the practitioner to pay you any money. (To get monetary compensation from a health care practitioner — whether alternative or conventional — you have to sue them or make a human rights complaint.) 

Where the practitioner is not regulated

If your alternative health care practitioner is not regulated, there may still be a professional body you can contact to at least report and discuss your situation. For example, there’s the BC Association of Homeopaths and the Canadian Society of Homeopaths if you’re dealing with a homeopath. For concerns about a certified clinical counsellor, you can contact the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, BC chapter.

Who can help

Lawyer Referral Service
Helps you connect with a lawyer for a free half-hour consult.
Access Pro Bono Clinics
Volunteer lawyers provide free legal advice to people with limited means.

  • Reviewed for legal accuracy in November 2021
  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Time to read: 9 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Lisa C. Fong, KC, Ng Ariss Fong

Lisa C. Fong, KC

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