‘Dr’ Who?

A worrying number of alternative health practitioners, all absent from the GMC’s List of Registered Practitioners, continue to enhance their credibility by using the title ‘Dr’.

These ‘doctors’ often carry out unregulated clinical tests and treatments which lack robust evidence to support them. Indeed, many such procedures even lack a plausible mechanism of action.

Some practitioners believe they are able to cure cancer. Some offer to treat autism. Some diagnose ‘invisible illnesses’ not recognised by conventional medicine. In many cases, the tests and therapies provided are not only a waste of time and money, they could also be harmful to consumers.

Advertising Guidelines

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) state here that advertisers wanting to refer to themselves as ‘Dr’, ‘a doctor’ (or any other similar term) should take care not to imply that they hold a general medical qualification if they do not. They also point out that practitioners of alternative therapies such as Traditional Chinese Medicine should not use the term ‘Dr’ unless they hold a general medical qualification.

Upheld Complaints

CAP also explain that the Advertising Standards Authority have upheld several complaints against dentists and chiropractors who have not taken this advice.  There are ten adjudications listed, with complaints upheld against numerous chiropractors, North Shrewsbury Community Church, GlaxoSmithKline UK and Great Chinese Herbal Medicine Ltd (t/a DrChina).

But that list was far from complete.

In 2007, Gillian McKeith stopped using the title ‘Dr’ following a complaint to the ASA. This is a woman who believes that chlorophyll has a cleansing and healing effect on the liver and that the tongue provides a window to the inner workings of the body. She has no medical qualification but instead holds a PhD from a very questionable, now defunct institution.

You may also remember the ‘multi-talented author’ and Reiki Master, Allan Sweeney from his early appearance in the ASA’s Hall of Shame. Although Sweeney stopped calling himself ‘Dr’ after being ‘exposed’ as long ago as 2001 (ASA adjudication here), he continued to imply he could cure a range of conditions (including cancer), leading to a further ASA adjudication in July 2011. His subsequent appearance in the Hall of Shame prompted me to report him to Trading Standards under the Cancer Act. The offending Reiki Healing site has since disappeared.

San Gogana, while ignoring the majority of the October 2011 ASA adjudication has at least dropped the ‘Dr’. As I wrote at the time, Ms Gogana thinks that Live Blood Analysis is the ‘ultimate preventative medicine tool available today’ and that you can assess the function of the internal organs by looking at the face, hair and ears.

The ASA have even upheld a complaint relating to the use of the title ‘Dr’ in a company name. Although ‘Dr’ Batra had been practising homeopathy for over thirty years and had trademarked the name in some parts of the world, he did not produce evidence that he holds a general medical qualification.

Still Unchecked

Although the ASA can and do take action against such ‘doctors’, many are able to slip through the net. Due to an unmanageable number of alternative health complaints, the ASA failed to complete their investigation into ‘Dr’ Stephen Ferguson. As is evident from some of the comments here he continues to mislead the public.

I don’t have time to discuss ‘Dr’ Ferguson’s truly astonishing CV here and urge you to read more on his website. In his defence, it’s blatantly obvious that he doesn’t hold a general medical qualification, though he has somehow found the time to amass no less than three PhDs (Holistic Nutrition, Nutritional Science and Neurolinguistic Programming/Clinical Hypnotherapy). ‘Dr’ Ferguson also claims to have cured himself of hypertension, arthritis, asthma, knee pain, migraines, back problems, gastroenteritis, shoulder problems, eczema and obesity.

‘BBC Radio’s’ ‘Dr’ Enid Taylor obtained her PhD from the same institution as the aforementioned Ms McKeith – the non-accredited and decidedly dodgy Clayton College of Natural Health (formerly the American Holistic College of Nutrition). Other notable alumni of this now defunct distance-learning college include the notorious cancer quacks Hulda Clark and ‘Dr’ Robert O Young.

‘Dr’ Enid boasts that she has appeared on BBC radio many times talking about various health issues as their regular “expert”. She practises at the Taymount Clinic, which offers scientifically sound procedures. These include Hopi Ear Candling and Colonic Hydrotherapy – both of which are far from scientifically sound (see here and here if you don’t believe me).

Dr Gloria Gilbère is a traditional naturopath, homeopath and ‘doctor of natural health’. She uses discredited methods such as Live Blood Analysis, and IgG tests to diagnose conditions such as ‘leaky gut’ syndrome (which is not recognised by the medical profession). A leading voice in ‘wholistic rejuvenation‘, Gilbère has authored eleven books and claims to have assisted thousands with so-called ‘invisible illnesses’.

Dr Ruben Bartolo, who is registered with the Health Profession Council and the Indian Board of Alternative Medicines has worked in the NHS and has nineteen years of clinical experience. He almost certainly never obtained a general medical qualification, but has a background in occupational therapy and naturopathy.

The types of treatments he provides are varied. I find it particularly worrying that ‘Children’s Health’ is listed:

Primary Care, Active Lifestyle, Addictions Treatment, Allergies Treatment, Asthma Treatment, Children’s Health, Diets, Smoking Cessation, Weight Loss, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Young People’s Health, Herbalism, Holistic Health, Homeopathy, Massage Therapy, Physiotherapy / Physical Therapy

Bartolo’s methods are also diverse, including some therapies so obscure that I’d never come across them before – such as homotoxicology, PRM and gemmotherapy.

Dr David McGlown is not as obviously ‘alternative’ and is certainly no naturopath. But, like all those mentioned above, he does not appear to have a general medical qualification.

The now retired psychologist founded a charity called ‘BIRD‘ in 1982, which still uses his ‘pioneering approach’ to treat children with brain injury, stroke, cerebral palsy, autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and non-specific learning difficulties.

Sadly, the closer you look, the more red flags you spot.

The site appeals to the authority of McGlown, described as ‘Dr’ and ‘clinical consultant’. The ‘unique approach’ uses a treatment they call ‘Developmental Reflexive Rehabilitation’. There is little detailed information on what this actually means. They present a collection of testimonials rather than studies published in medical journals. Although you can’t read peer-reviewed papers, you can, however, read McGlown’s own book. This was reviewed here, where it was noted that ‘there is a mild degree of paranoia evident’ and that the author is defensive about the fact that his unit is outside the NHS.

I haven’t had to go out of my way to find these examples and am certain that there are lots more out there. If you spot a ‘dodgy doctor’, please get in touch or add a comment below. You could also report the site to the ASA.

Further reading

Brought to book: the poo lady’s PhD Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, 03/02/07

Making Sense of Testing Sense about Science, 2008

Is there a Doctor in the clinic? Zeno, Zeno’s blog, 27/04/11

IPAN – Questionable Treatments for ‘PreAutistic’ Children Andy Lewis, The Quackometer, 02/01/12

10 responses to “‘Dr’ Who?

  1. We’ve got to be a little bit careful here because doctor (or ‘Dr’) doesn’t mean general medical practitioner. It means ‘teacher’. I would bet that if you added up all the physicists, chemists, psychologists, sociologists… in the word who have legitimate PhDs, you’d find there were more people using the title ‘doctor’ from these and similar fields than all of the medical doctors. If you’ve not got a doctorate, or if you’ve got a doctorate from a pretend college, we have every right to take the micky and put your title in scare-quotes. If you’ve got a doctorate in astrophysics from a decent university and claim to be able to cure cancer, we’re going to point out that you’ve completely lost the plot and do all we can to protect the public from you, but can’t stop you calling yourself ‘doctor’ because you are one.

    That’s my ten pence worth anyway.

  2. They can call themselves doctor but cannot in any way shape or form imply that they are a medical doctor if they are not. Calling themselves a doctor in a advert for a medical treatment is doing just that, their PhD is irrelevant to the advertisement otherwise and would not be included. The practice of doing that is therefore purposefully misleading. It may be acceptable at times to include the PhD with explicit statement that the PhD is irrelevant to the subject at hand but who does that and would the purpose be?

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  4. I think what they meant by doctor is like a masteral or doctorate to a new level of hypnotherapy because not all hypnotist heals, some are very experienced even the video they created works like this one http://tinyurl.com/FreeGregoryHypnosisVideo

  5. Perhaps I didn’t make the point clearly enough – neither I or CAP are saying that you need a general medical qualification in order to call yourself ‘Dr’. As Vince said, the point is that you shouldn’t imply you are a medical doctor of you are not.

    If you have a relevant doctorate, then you can call yourself ‘Dr’, but if there is any potential for confusion, you should also use the suffix ‘PhD’. For example, CAP state:

    “CAP believes that it is likely to be acceptable for advertisers who possess a relevant PhD or relevant doctorate (of sufficient length and intensity) to call themselves “Dr” although marketers should note that that position has not been tested by the ASA. Marketers should use the suffix “PhD” to clarify that that is the type of qualification they are referring to. For example, we believe that it would be acceptable for a hypnotherapist with a PhD in Psychology to call himself “Dr John Smith PhD … Hypnotherapist”, because the PhD is relevant to the practice of hypnotherapy. It is likely to be acceptable for advertisers who hold a PhD in a non-relevant subject to use the “PhD” suffix if they do not use the prefix “Dr”.”

    In many cases though (eg ‘Dr’ Stephen Ferguson, Gillian McKeith), I believe the PhDs themselves are not worthy of the title. In such cases, even if the practitioner uses the suffix ‘PhD’ to make clear they don’t hold a general medical qualification, I believe it is still misleading to use the title ‘Dr’. It gives them credibility they do not deserve. (See this 21st Floor post for a bit more on this: http://www.thetwentyfirstfloor.com/?p=3209)

    Similarly, it concerns me that it is still possible (eg at the University of Westminster) to obtain a BSc or MSc by completing courses that are positively anti-science:

    http://www.dcscience.net/?p=4683

    http://josephinejones.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/university-of-westminster-i-still-believe-you-are-teaching-pseudoscience-degrees-and-am-surprised-your-life-sciences-people-think-otherwise/

    I find it shocking that people who call themselves ‘Dr’ or have the letters BSc or MSc after their names often have downright bizarre ideas and misunderstandings about the human body – and are in the business of giving out medical advice to credulous members of the public.

  6. I was recently browsing a list of doctors looking for a specialist near my sister’s house in Canterbury and this post just made me think about the possibility that some of the people listed on there might be scammers for all I know (I am not aware of the standards assumed to appear on that list, of some other similar websites, if it’s just ad-based or they thoroughly research practitioners who appear on it). It’s quite a shameful thing indeed. I also didn’t know about the existence of such courses in the University. That leaves me even more surprised. Have we come too far regarding acceptance of “alternative” medicine? Somewhere the line must be drawn.

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  8. Dear oh dear. How can I have forgotten ‘Dr’ Nancy Malik? She really ought to have been included in this post.

    Since I’ve not written about her as yet, here’s a link to someone who has:

    http://blog.anarchic-teapot.net/2012/03/14/nancy-malik-is-an-optimist/

  9. Lets get real here. Anyone with a Phd should be entitled to call themselves doctor, and I dare say passing a Phd is often a lot harder than passing medical exams, so the GMC and some of their members should get off their high horses, and accept that they are not the only doctors that are around. To complete a Phd often takes 5-7 years study at degree level, with a specialism of research that can take anywhere from 3-6 years. Doctors should remember their hippocratic oath and worry about treating the patient and get away from their egotistical autocratic practice which left with the Victorians.

    • I’m not saying people with PhDs shouldn’t call themselves Dr, but that people should not imply they are medically qualified if they are not. Secondly, some PhDs are not as rigorous as the title implies – for example ones from non accredited correspondence courses (eg those held by Gillian McKeith and Robert O Young).

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