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Deception and Ethics in Sectarian Medicine

In January I had the pleasure of attending TAM 5.5 in Fort Lauderdale. On the last day of the conference the JREF had an open house where anyone interested could come see the inner workings at the JREF facility. Since I had a rental car I decided to go through the lobby to see if anyone needed a ride, and sure enough one Dr. Harriet Hall took me up on my offer.During the 20 minute drive that I had Harriet captive we were able to have a pleasant and illuminating (for me) conversation, during which I told Dr. Hall about an experience I had with a chiropractor in my neck of the woods. This got me thinking about honesty and purposeful deception in alternative medicine, and for this reason I’m going to start this blog entry off with a personal anecdote about an incident that occurred some years back just after I graduated from Nursing and had become a full-fledged registered nurse.

After having some back problems I decided to go to a respected chiropractor in Calgary (a city of about 1 million people). Since it was my first visit I needed to go through a full ‘assessment’ and the chiropractor took my blood pressure, had me step on two scales (one for each foot) so that he could weigh both sides of my body simultaneously, and he also took a single anterior X-Ray of my chest/spine (anterior means an X-Ray taken straight on with my back against the photographic plate – actually I think the technical term for that is an AP or anterior-postero X-Ray).

After the assessment and a few questions he took me into a treatment room and cracked my back in about 10 different ways. I insisted that he NOT touch my neck at all and while he tried to talk me out of it, he at least respected that request. During the cracking I asked him about some mild crunching I noticed in my neck when I turned my head and he immediately said to me “that’s because you’re not eating right”. I informed him that I had a significant knowledge about nutrition and that I ate very well. He then said “yes, but it’s the food that you’re eating, it’s not as good as it used to be. You need to take these supplements to ensure that your dietary needs are fully met and then the problems with your neck can go away.”

I may have been only 22 years old and relatively naïve, but I was having a hard time swallowing what he had to say about my neck and how he miraculously diagnosed my minor problem as a nutritional deficiency without even as much as a look at my neck or a question about my eating habits. After I had decided that he was a quack trying to sell me supplements that only he could provide me, he took me over to a treatment room where he unveiled my X-Ray. To my significant shock and amazement I found myself staring at a spine that was significantly altered by scoliosis; indeed, a visible S-shaped curve lay before me illuminated by a light box. I remember asking the chiropractor why, if my back was so dramatically curved that I hadn’t experienced more significant symptoms? To be honest I can’t remember what his rationale for this was, but I do remember that he started telling me stories about other patients he had seen with significant scoliosis and that he was able to straighten their spines completely. The catch was that I had to go see him every day for 2 years. Yep, if I did that then he could pretty much guarantee that my spine could be straightened out. Needless to say I didn’t return to him, but I went through the next few years believing that my spine was racked with scoliosis.

Eventually I had another chest X-Ray after I sustained a shoulder injury playing football, and I happened to get a look at that X-Ray. Imagine my surprise when I saw that my spine looked perfectly straight and normal. I won’t lie to you, it took me about an hour to connect the dots and realize that all those years before the chiropractor had put someone else’s X-Ray in front of me in a sort of bait-and-switch scam where eventually he could use my real X-Ray to ‘prove’ that his treatments worked to cure my scoliosis. That is, of course, after I had dropped $25 a visit every day for 2 years (that’s $13,000.00 assuming 5 visits per week).

Not surprisingly I was enraged by the realization that this chiropractor tried to scam me. I contacted the chiropractor’s office and demanded that they release my medical records (specifically my X-Ray) to me and they refused saying that they could only release them to a physician, but when my physician requested the X-Ray the chiropractor’s office informed him that they had destroyed the X-Ray and all of my medical records (why was never made clear). I then made several attempts to contact the Alberta College and Association of Chiropractors, with all telephone and email correspondence going unanswered.

Of course, this is only my personal, highly subjective and anecdotal story. But it does make me wonder how much of this sort of thing is going on out there in the alternative medical field. After all, most lay-people are completely exposed to being exploited by pseudo-scientific jargon coming from a person in a white coat with the prefix ‘Dr.’ before their name. What is most disturbing to me is that the Alberta College of Chiropractors, supposedly the governing and disciplinary body for these practitioners didn’t feel that it was necessary to respond to my concerns.

In my neck of the woods there are several chiropractors, for example, who subscribe to NAET therapy, homeopathic remedies, and even anti-vaccine doctrine. To me these all represent deceptive and unethical practices since their patients stand to lose plenty of cash and perhaps even contract deadly disease by following their advice. Is it any of my business if someone uses these services and is deceived? Actually, for me and my fellow Canadians it does matter since we are part of a universal health care system where chiropractic care is subsidized by the government. In Alberta Chiropractic treatments can be claimed on universal health care at a rate of $14 per visit up to a maximum of $200 per year. That makes it everyone’s problem.

Chiropractors are certainly not the only ones engaging in what could be interpreted as deliberate deception (NAET Therapy). Indeed, in Alberta there are eight registered NAET practitioners. Some may argue that NAET is not dangerous, but since it purports to eliminate allergies through what basically amounts to magical thinking. NAET is based on the concept that allergies are caused by an ‘energy blockage’ that can be diagnosed with muscle testing and cured with a bizarre combination of acupressure and other modalities. I wonder how a NAET practitioner can engage in these treatments with someone who has a severe nut allergy? Surely they must understand that if their ‘treatment’ fails the results could be fatal for the patient. It is a these times when deception in alternative medicine takes on a far different meaning than merely trying to extract money by claiming a herbal supplement or chiropractic adjustments are going to improve a patient’s life. I think a good start would be to ensure that the governing bodies of these organizations actually seek out and quash deceptive and dishonest practices. In the case of my province, a good start would be merely responding to complaints in the first place.

Posted in: Chiropractic, Health Fraud, Medical Ethics

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