Is all Press Good Press?....A Cautionary Tale for Herbalists

Ok, so here’s how it all started….

On May 25th the manager at Blue Dragon Apothecary in Greenfield, MA, where I see clients, got in touch asking if I wanted to speak with a reporter who was writing an article about local apothecaries and herbalism in the Valley. I thought about it for a moment and said “yes,” thinking it would be a good opportunity to get the word about my services and to tout the benefits of herbalism in general to an audience that might not be familiar with it. I consider myself a community herbalist, and that’s community herbalism in practice, right? (I told myself)

Blue Dragon Apothecary in Greenfield, MA, where I see most of my clients

Blue Dragon Apothecary in Greenfield, MA, where I see most of my clients

I was given the option of speaking in person with the reporter or answering some questions over email that he sent, and I chose the latter option.  Here’s what he asked me: 1) How would you define herbalism?  2) What does herbalism do and what is its importance? 3) What happens when someone makes an appointment with you? 4) What are some of the things herbalism can help with?

I knew right off the bat that there were some potential traps in there in answering these questions, so I took the utmost care to answer these all in a way that avoided making any health claims that could paint me as practicing medicine without a license (avoiding words like "treat, cure, patient, diagnose," not naming specific diseases, and so on...). As herbalists, we have to be SO careful about this. So of course that puts us in a difficult position, but to cover ourselves legally we really need to refer to ourselves as health educators and never ever as anything resembling a doctor.  This is why clients receive an informed consent form when they come see me for an appointment that they read and sign, indicating that they understand I am not making any claims to treat, cure, or diagnose any disease.  And that I am definitely not a doctor!

Ok, so back to the virtual interview: So I answered these questions and avoided all potentially entrapping language and when I thought I’d done a pretty good job of explaining what herbalism was within the framework of language I’m allowed to use, hit the send button.

Fast-forward a few days to the publication of the article in the Greenfield Recorder on May 30th, 2016.

I read the original article online and my jaw drops.

The reporter has interviewed the head oncologist at the local hospital and asked their opinion on using herbs in conjunction with chemotherapy.  They commented that they didn’t recommend the use of herbs while under-going chemotherapy. Then the writer took one of my answers from the questions he asked me over email and wrote them into the article immediately after her quote, to sound as if I was in disagreement with the oncologist and was suggesting that herbs should be used in place of chemotherapy…..ummmm, excuse me what?!?!

Please note that NOWHERE in those questions I answered does the reporter ask me about my opinion on using herbs with chemotherapy, nowhere! And nowhere in my answers did I directly comment on my opinion on using herbs with cancer.  My comments were taken out of context so that he could have a story. 

Let's all pause a minute and have a moment with Wild Rose (Rosa multiflora)...beloved nervines like this one definitely helped me through this!

Let's all pause a minute and have a moment with Wild Rose (Rosa multiflora)...beloved nervines like this one definitely helped me through this!

My emotions ran the gamut- fear of legal action being taken against me for making health claims about cancer and practicing medicine without a license (if there was EVER a place that I could get into SERIOUS trouble legally, this is it.  Being depicted as making health claims about treating cancer of all things!!!), anxiety and worry about my reputation as an herbalist in my community, rage towards the writer who set me up just to have his story, and deep sadness and discouragement in realizing that we have still have SO far to go in this country towards accepting herbs as the beneficial healing agents that they are.  I welcome the opportunity to speak with my client’s healthcare providers and believe that collaboration and communication with them is on the front-lines of herbalism in terms of gaining more acceptance as legitimate complimentary care (like acupuncture, massage, and so on).  An article like this is just so damaging to this upward struggle of collaboration and working together.

And that last part is the biggest problem......

There’s a Catch 22 for us herbalists who want herbalism to become more accepted in our culture.  How can we communicate with folks that don’t know what herbalism is without being depicted as “quacks” or renegade doctors?  What avenues can we safely pursue?  I am lucky enough to be in 3rd year Clinical Rotations at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism, and brought my story to class. My teachers, Katja Swift and Ryn Midura, had SO much wisdom to share here, and based on their input, and also what I’ve learned in this process, here are some basic principals to keep in mind if you are ever approached to discuss herbalism in a mainstream setting/platform and would like to take the plunge, but want to have yourself covered legally:

  • Always avoid any language that could put you at risk for being charged with "practicing medicine without a license". Keywords to avoid: treat, cure, patient, diagnose
  • Don't let clients refer to you as their doctor! (yes, I've had to correct folks on this before)
  • Don’t ever make claims about treating specific disease
  • Always refer to the folks you see for consultations as clients, not patients
  • If you are asked directly, legally you need to say that you always defer to healthcare professionals if you share a client and they have indicated that they don’t want their patient using herbs. There is still SO much lifestyle modifications and nutritional support we can offer!
  • DO use language like help, support, aid, address, educate, provide resources, improve function, and so on
  • Be sure that the person writing the article, interviewing you, etc understands that you are a *health educator* and not a doctor or medical practitioner, and that you could be put at risk legally if depicted anything other than an educator
  • Ask to be able to read/view the final publication before it is published and have the authority to ask for edits if necessary
  • IF something goes wrong, keep copies of it all, talk to a lawyer and don’t be afraid to stick up for yourself

So how does the story end?

Immediately after reading the article, I feverishly began writing an email to the reporter and cc'ed his editors, explaining the major problems I had with the article- potential legal troubles, my reputation in the community, and my comments being taken out of context.....not to mention the damage that it incurs on the image of herbalism in general.  Within a day I had heard from both the Editor and Executive Editor of the paper (not from the writer, however, Dominic Poli).  They expressed their sincere apologies, removed the problematic paragraph from the online article, agreed that my comments had wrongfully been taken out of context, and an editor’s note was published the next day in the paper and the online article was edited.

The editor’s note reads:
Editor’s note: “This story was amended from its original version to delete an incorrect suggestion that community herbalist Jade Alicandro Mace had disagreed with an oncology nurse manager who warned of the risks of combining herbs with traditional medical treatments for cancer. Mace said she always defers to medical professionals and that professional guidance is important when people use herbs in conjunction with pharmaceuticals. “ Published June 1, 2016- one day after the article was published

So that pretty adequately covers me from a legal standpoint.  In hindsight I wish it said something about the fact that I was never even asked about my opinion regarding herbs and cancer.  I was advised by a lawyer friend to keep hard copies of the original article as well as the editor’s note, which I did, and that writing an article or blog post about it would be a good move as well.

Practicing community herbalism at Herbstalk 2016!

Practicing community herbalism at Herbstalk 2016!

I’ve decided not to pursue legal action, even though I’d probably have a case according to the lawyer.  She said that usually with cases like this the damages (both financial and reputational) are based on the amount of time that passed between the original comments and the correction, which in my case was only 1 day. I could also bring the case to court and sue for $1 damages just to have it legally documented, as just talking to a lawyer doesn’t protect you legally at all.  I’ve decided that between the editor’s note and sharing my story with my community that this is adequate protection for me. And as a side note, I also had a wonderful and very positive exchange with the oncologist, having called her to set the record straight, and we may even meet in person to discuss herbs and cancer, so perhaps there is a small victory there too in moving forward being in community with allopathic healthcare practitioners in my community.

Basically, I feel like I really “took one for the herbal team” here and hope that by sharing my misadventure, naivete, and the lessons I’ve learned, I can help the community herbalism movement in our community here in western Massachusetts and beyond.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can legally protect ourselves and also interface with “mainstream” society more. What would you add to the list I wrote? Let’s get a resource going that herbalists can refer too!

In Community and Solidarity,

Jade Alicandro Mace, community herbalist