Have you ever heard of a friend having a bad time with an alternative practitioner? Maybe their acupuncturist left them bruised and battered or their homeopath told them they could cure their incurable disease with an expensive potion, only it wasn’t to be? Maybe it’s happened to you? But what would you do if this did happen to you? Who could you turn to for help or to make a complaint?

For many years, unregistered practitioners such as naturopaths, acupuncturists, reiki practitioners, massage therapists, iridologists and the like, have been without any accountability for selling bogus or dangerous products or services.

In Australia, we have the federally controlled Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) which is responsible for “safeguarding public health and safety in Australia by regulating medicines, medical devices, blood and tissues”. But this does not include unregistered and alternative health practitioners. In NSW, a Code of Conduct for Unregistered Practitioners was released on August 1st, 2008. The code consists of 17 sections, covering such matters as;

practitioners are to provide services in a safe and ethical manner, are not to financially exploit clients and practitioners are required to have a clinical basis for their treatment”.

The code is designed to fill a loophole for the regulation of health providers who are not covered by a registration body, meaning that although the public could lodge a complaint about a practitioner, the regulatory bodies could do little more than slap them on the wrist. Whereas this new legislation means they can be banned from practicing either for a specific period or permanently. The code is administered by the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) and if breached,

the Commission has the power to impose a prohibition order and/or issue a public warning about the practitioner and their services. A prohibition order bans a practitioner from providing health services, or places conditions on their provision of health services, for a specified period or permanently. It is a criminal offence to breach the order”.

But not every state in Australia has such a code for alternative health practitioners. (One wonders if Queensland is exempt since there seems to be so much woo in this state). For example South Australia (SA) does not, but a parliamentary inquiry is currently underway which plans to change this. Labour MP Trish White set-up a Social Development Committee inquiry in 2007. Its brief was to investigate “bogus, unregistered and deregistered health practitioners” and to develop a way to regulate the growing number of people making false claims about their ability to cure. White hopes the inquiry will expose the charlatans and work out ways to stop them popping up again under different names.

The current inquiry is spearheaded by the state head of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Dr Peter Ford, the proposal is modelled on the NSW code. The impetus for the introduction of such a code came from Dr Ford as a mechanism for regulating quacks. Dr Ford told the inquiry that the unregulated practitioners are a “relative risk to patient health and have enjoyed immunity and lack of scrutiny from the legal and regulatory authorities which apply to the medical profession”.

In his submission about “bogus” doctors, he highlights colonic irrigation, thermography, subluxation and cancer cures as some of the more dangerous alternative medicine treatments. AS previously mentioned on Dr Rachie Reports, colonic irrigation can result in tearing of the colon and septicemia, or chronic depletion of electrolytes and death.

Thermography is a tool promoted as a way to detect breast cancer, but the AMA says it is unreliable, missing known cancers and diagnosing non-existent cancers – and further it is expensive. Chiropractic subluxations or spinal problems, can lead to other health complaints. The AMA is concerned about children being subjected to unnecessary X-rays for what is a controversial diagnosis and treatment (see here for more information). Regular listeners to Dr Rachie will remember that chiropractic manipulation has lead to death from tearing of arteries in the neck.

Dr Ford also cites fanciful claims of cancer cures as particularly insidious. And as is evidenced by some of the complaints currently being heard as part of the inquiry, it seems this is an urgent inclusion. He also cited other therapies, such as alternative massage therapies, Vega testing and coffee or chamomile enemas are “untested and potentially harmful”. Vega testing is as food allergy test, reminscent of alternative hair analysis, which claims to identify different food allergies and then prescribes you a special diet.

QuackWatch describes the Vega test as “…used to diagnose nonexistent health problems, select inappropriate treatment, and defraud insurance companies. The practitioners who use them are either delusional, dishonest, or both. These devices should be confiscated and the practitioners who use them should be prosecuted”.

Recently an article appeared in the local Adelaide press about a health practitioner treating cancer sufferers with massage, home-made remedies, and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). The Favira Clinic, run by “miracle worker” Elvira Brunt uses a type of massage to change the way blood flows through the body, and this is supposed to cure terminal illnesses. Her supporters call her a gifted healer who can cure cancer. Her detractors have told a parliamentary committee that she takes money from vulnerable people, charging hundreds of dollars for a few precious minutes, paid in cash, with no receipt.

The AMA claims that she tried to convince the parents of a young leukemia victim to delay giving her treatment. The girls’ GP eventually told the committee the delays had a devastating effect;

….the interventions by the bogus practitioner served only to reduce the opportunity of giving the girl the best chance of a cure…..and when the cure could not be achieved she was deprived of optimal palliative care”.

Even more bizarre, Brunt apparently advised the girl’s father to give her the aforementioned KFC to get her kidneys functioning properly. The girl has since died. Her GP said; “People battling serious or terminal illnesses can be desperate and will sometimes hand over large amounts of money for quite useless treatments. We would like to think that the public is protected from such charlatans”.

Also reported to the inquiry is a man known as Lubo Bitelco who is alleged to have promised a woman a “50 percent” cure for cancer through a technique known as vaginal blowing, during which she had to move up and down on the bed saying “oh boy!”

In NSW, making claims of curing cancer or other terminal illnesses was outlawed in August 2008 with the introduction of the code. According to section 5, part 1 of the code; “A health practitioner must not hold himself or herself out as qualified, able or willing to cure cancer and other terminal illnesses”.

Also according to section 17 of the Code, Health Practitioners (with some exceptions such as the ambulance service and private hospitals) must display the Code and information about the way in which clients may make a complaint to the HCCC if necessary. These documents are available as easily downloadable pdfs from the Department of Health and the HCCC websites.

I am currently making enquiries as to whether it is an offence if the code is not displayed. If this is the case, it should make for an interesting visit to the Mind body Wallet festival at the end of this month, where all manner of fantastical woo is on display, with only the NSW department of health and the TGA are conspicuous by their absence.

I am personally very pleased to see the code introduced and hope that SA expect something similar. One expects Dr Peter Ford is not going to let these “wide-ranging ratbags” get off the hook that easily. He is a very active campaigner for science based medicine and features regularly on local ABC radio in SA.

What interested me most about the code is how it will be implemented. For example, can I dob in a website that claims to treat cancer with oxygen, water, sunlight and sleep? In accordance with Section 5,

health practitioners are not to make claims to cure serious illnesses”

including cancer, but do they actually have to state the word “cure” in their promotional material? What if they just infer they can cure an illness?

I was particularly interested in Section 12 which states that health practitioners are not to misinform their clients. Part 2 states that a health practitioner must provide truthful information to his or her qualifications, training or professional affiliations if asked. So, does this mean the end for people posing as doctors with bogus or on-line PhDs? One can only hope.

Section 3 is also interesting and has potentially far reaching consequences.

A health practitioner must not make claims about the efficacy of treatment or services if the claims cannot be substantiated”.

Sounds like curtains for KFC and “water can cure incurable diseases”. I will be very interested to see what impact the code has on alternative and unregistered practitioners in NSW.

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