The governing body for naturopaths in Alberta has dismissed a complaint against one of its members related to the death of Ezekiel Stephan, whose parents were convicted after treating his meningitis with natural remedies instead of seeking medical treatment.

David and Collet Stephan were found guilty in Lethbridge, Alta., in 2016 of failing to provide the necessaries of life in relation to the 19-month-old’s death.

(Although unusual in everyday parlance, the word “necessaries” — not “necessities” — is the Criminal Code charge.)

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The trial heard the little boy was too stiff to sit in his car seat and had to lie on a mattress when Collet drove him from their rural home to a naturopathic clinic in Lethbridge to pick up an echinacea mixture. 

The complaint to the College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta was filed by Dr. Michelle Cohen against Tracey Tannis, a naturopath who worked at the Lethbridge Naturopathic Medical Clinic.

No examination of Ezekiel

Cohen, a medical doctor, alleged Tannis sold the echinacea mixture to the Stephans to treat the meningitis that killed 19-month-old Ezekiel a short time later, but the College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta said it found no evidence to support the claim that Tannis saw or examined Ezekiel, or discussed his condition with the Stephans.

“The Stephans did not seek advice, care, treatment or recommendation from Dr. Tannis, or any other registered naturopath,” reads the ruling. 

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Cohen said she is satisfied with that answer.

“This is an apparent clarification of the conflicting accounts that arose during the Stephan trial,” she said in an email. 

“Dr. Tannis stated she was unaware Collet was in the clinic but a clinic employee testified that the two did speak to one another. If the CNDA has established with a high degree of confidence that Dr. Tannis never gave Collet Stephan echinacea for Ezekiel then I am satisfied with this answer.”

Conflicts and ethical pitfalls

The other portion of Cohen’s complaint centred on the more challenging question of conflict of interests and ethical compromises that could arise from the dual role of selling commercial products for a profit and advising patients as a licensed medical practitioner.

Again, the CNDA found no fault on the part of Tannis, but only because there were no professional guidelines. The profession was unregulated in March 2012 when the incident took place. 

“It is unreasonable to impose the current legislative and regulatory standards on a practitioner when evaluating an event that occurred before they existed,” reads the ruling. 

No guidelines

Cohen said she can’t fault the college for its findings, but was hoping it would take a broader view of the question and outline its standards for members relating to the sale of herbal products.

“Ultimately, I feel the CNDA did perform an adequate job investigating the conduct of a specific naturopath in a specific case, however they completely ignored their greater responsibility to the public to deal with the question of selling herbal products out of a naturopathic clinic,” said Cohen. 

“In my view they need to address the conflict of interest issue as well as the issue of professional responsibility if a product sold by a naturopath results in a poor health outcome.”

Tannis was not immediately available for comment. 

The CNDA said it was not able to comment on any specific matter related to a complaint.

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