French online medical platform Doctolib has been accused of promoting alternative medicines and practitioners after users found appointments on it for naturopaths offering ‘leaf extracts’ as a cure.
Doctolib is available to health professionals whose activity is governed by the Code de la santé publique, and is also open to osteopaths and psychologists.
However, the platform can also be used by professionals whose activity falls into the ‘wellbeing’ category. These practitioners may not be regulated or recognised by the state, and may be able to charge a wider range of fees for their care.
This ‘wellbeing’ category has been disputed.
Tristan Mendès-France, lecturer at the University of Paris, told Le Parisien that Doctolib has taken on an “institutional [trustworthy] air” since its participation in the Covid-19 vaccination appointment crisis. And yet, some alternative practitioners offer unproven or controversial services.
For example, users can currently book appointments for a hypnosis seance, a naturopath appointment, a sophrology appointment, a ‘neurofeedback’ session (the latter is described as helping the user to control their neuron activity), or a naturopath appointment that invites you to drink your own urine.
In its defence, Doctolib said that it is not its place to "decide" or take sides in the debates that surround alternative medicine.
In a Tweet, it said that only “3% of its users practise an activity that comes under the ‘wellbeing’ or ‘medical-social’ umbrella. Their activity is legal, but they are of course not health professionals. Appointments with these practitioners represent just 0.3% of the appointments made with Doctolib.”
It added: “Society is evolving, and…some patient associations are promoting access to complementary therapies. We consider that it is not the role of Doctolib to decide on these debates.”
It said that the website clearly states when “the practitioner is exercising an unregulated profession” and when “their diploma is not recognised by the state”.
The platform said that it would investigate reports made by users that claimed unscrupulous practitioners were operating on the site, including one Tweet that alleged a naturopath was offering treatments including “barley grass juice” and “leaf extract”.
Suspension of naturopaths
On August 22, Doctolib said that it had banned the profiles of some naturopaths on its site who have alleged links with Irène Grosjean and Thierry Casasnovas, two influential personalities online who are accused of having ‘sectarian’ and cult-like qualities, and whose practices have been widely discredited.
The platform confirmed that it had stopped users from being able to book with 17 such practitioners, whose training mentions these two highly-controversial names.
Irène Grosjean in particular has been accused of promoting non-scientific and even illegal practices, while Thierry Casasnovas is currently being criminally investigated for “illegal practice of medicine”.
Despite having no recognised medical training, he is alleged to have pushed some patients to give up their existing medication for severe illnesses, including some patients who were encouraged to give up their cancer treatment.
Doctolib is also inviting users to report any profile that appears to be promoting illegal practice of medicine.
Alternative medicine controversy in France
Alternative medicine is controversial in France.
Judges investigated several cases in 2021, including the death of a 44-year-old woman who was paying €1,000 a week for a fasting treatment in a Loire chateau. She was found dead in her room after having drunk no water for several days.
The prefect ordered the course to be closed and a judge at Tours is investigating possible involuntary homicide.
The naturopath who ran the course denied involvement in the death and said the only explanation was her Covid vaccination.
Participants told French media that they drank only water during the fast and one man had been taken to hospital after he stopped taking medicine for his diabetes.
In another case, the widow of a 41-year-old man who died from testicular cancer brought a criminal complaint against a naturopath who had advised the man to stop chemotherapy treatment and to rely on ‘natural’ treatments such as fasts and purges.
The naturopath faced a Paris court on charges of “illegally practising medicine and usurping a doctor’s work”.
‘Charlatans running a sect’
At the time, Claire Cavelier, spokeswoman for the LaFéna, a federation of eight naturopath training schools that offers its own 1,200-hour course, said that trustworthy and ethical naturopaths would never encourage such practices.
She said: “There is enormous interest in naturopathy at the moment, which unfortunately has attracted many charlatans or would-be gurus into the area because there are no regulations in France. You could buy a brass plate with your name and ‘naturopath’ on it today, and be open for business tomorrow.
“Charging €1,000 a week for a fasting treatment, or telling people to ignore a doctor’s prescription, is not something any naturopath should do and is an example of charlatan practice, and could even be classified as running a sect.”
Naturopathy, which seeks to establish equilibrium in the body through ‘natural’ means, is recognised as traditional medicine by the World Health Organisation, and is regulated in Germany, Portugal, and Switzerland. In France, naturopaths are forbidden from giving diagnoses or prescribing medicines.
Ms Cavelier said she would like to see similar regulation in France to other European countries, saying “cases like the ones we have had this summer always slow down or reverse any progress we have made”.
Naturopaths say that they encourage people to undertake treatments such as changing diet, fasting, phytotherapy (using plants, often in tisanes or tinctures), massages, yoga, or sport to improve health, and say illnesses can only be understood by looking for deep-rooted causes and treating them.
Homeopathy was previously reimbursed up to 30% by the French state, but in 2021 this was stopped.
The change was made after the health authority la Haute Autorité de santé (HAS) – with then-Health Minister Agnès Buzyn – judged that homeopathic remedies were not proven to be sufficiently effective to be eligible for state medical reimbursement.