By William M. London
So many dirty ducktors to choose from! So hard to narrow the list down to just twelve!
A dirtiest ducktor list could feature doctors who dirtied their profession with promiscuous prescribing of painkillers, but that would be a bit off-topic for the Healthy Skepticism Channel. Same for doctors, like this one, who filed insurance claims for services never rendered or for doctors, especially chiropractors, providing unnecessary treatments to people involved in auto accidents in order to scam insurance companies.
And, of course, the most obvious choices of doctors who could be described as dirty are sexual predators who use patients as prey. There were many stories in 2013, as in previous years, of doctors of chiropractic who were disciplined for manipulating breasts or genitalia instead manipulating spines (which chiropractors frequently do despite the questionable therapeutic value of spinal manipulative therapy for back pain). Chiropractic licensing boards tend to be willing to discipline chiropractors for dirty deeds involving sexual contact, but with few notable exceptions, they tend not to discipline chiropractors for using any of their many bizarre diagnostic and treatment techniques).
It’s also not unusual for state licensing boards for psychologists to discipline sexual predators. In April 2013, the Pennsylvania State Board of Psychology revoked the license of an especially egregious sexual predator, Richard Scott Lenhart, Ph.D., who engaged in a multitude of inappropriate behaviors with one patient over a seven-year period and another over a fifteen-year period.
Healthy skepticism is important for patients or clients encountering practitioners who try to convince them that sexual contact is needed as part of therapy. But focusing on these practitioners doesn’t really accomplish the goals of the Healthy Skepticism Channel.
So let’s check out some promoters of woo, nostrums, and health superstition!
But first, here are the official (which means made up by me) healthy skepticism criteria for dirty duckstorism:
- The ducktor made diagnostic, therapeutic, or prophylactic claims in advertising or publicity for products and services offered to consumers.
- The ducktor’s claims were implausible and either non-validated (inadequately tested) or invalidated (tested repeatedly with unimpressive results).
- The ducktor was disciplined during 2013 in regard to misleading treatment of patients.
- The ducktor was mentioned in Consumer Health Digest in 2013.
The third criterion excludes many promoters of pseudomedicine who attracted the attention of skeptics in 2013. Let’s hope that there will be improvements in consumer protection law and law enforcement so that more medical renegades and rascals can be disciplined, and qualify as dirty ducktors for 2014.
The fourth criterion biases the list toward ducktors in the United States. I hereby acknowledge that other nations have ducktors that are as dirty as my nation’s ducktors. (Please keep them away from us!)
None of the criteria exclude from consideration people without doctorates. You don’t have to be a doctor to be a ducktor. But sounding like a duck can help to get you on the list.
Making the list makes no judgment about the personal hygiene or sexual proclivities of any of the ducktors (although it turns out that one did get in trouble for an inappropriate sexual relationship). Dirty ducktors can be pleasant people in many settings.
Dirtiness isn’t a matter just of dirty data. Michael Gregg famously pointed out: “We are always dealing with dirty data. The trick is to do it with a clean mind.”
In narrowing down the list to twelve and ordering the list, I tried to be clean-minded. I considered each ducktor’s record of severity of disciplinary action, actual and potential harm of promoted treatments, notoriety, promotional claims and rationales for therapies, and overall weirdness and irrationality. Nevertheless, lists such as this one are subjective judgments. You are free to disagree (politely please) with my picks and maybe you can help us learn more about aberrant health care.
So without further ado, here is my dirtiest dozen list of 2013 followed by descriptions of the activities of each ducktor:
- Kevin Trudeau
- Toby Carl McAdam
- Greta S. Armstrong
- Brandon Lee Babcock, D.C.
- Carol Ann Ryser, M.D.
- Ronald R. Wempen, M.D.
- Jeffrey Piccirillo, D.O.
- Jonathan V. Wright, M.D.
- David Steenblock, D.O.
- Malcolm Hooper
- David Ray Toftness, D.C.
- David Manago, D.C.
#1. Kevin Trudeau
Trudeau not only earned the top spot for 2013. He is also the first inductee into the Hall of Shame for Lifetime Contributions to Duckstorism.
Trudeau has a lengthy history of battling with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about false advertising for products. An index of case documents regarding Trudeau is provided at Casewatch.
In 2004, in one of the cases, a federal judge ordered Trudeau to pay $2 million to consumers and prohibited him from using infomercials to advertise any products except books—but books would be permitted only if (a) they did not refer to any other product Trudeau was marketing and (b) the infomercial did not misrepresent the content of the book.
In 2007, Trudeau advertised that the plan in his weight loss book was easy to follow. The FTC disagreed and initiated both criminal and civil contempt proceedings in a federal court in 2011.
In November 2013, a federal jury took less than an hour to find the notoriously slippery infomercial pitchman guilty of criminal contempt in connection with his advertising of his book The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About. The supposed “cure” was centered around the use of injections of human chorionic gonadotropin. However, studies have demonstrated that these hormone injections don’t cause weight loss. Regulatory actions by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration have curbed their use in the United States.
Also in November 2013, Trudeau lost his appeal to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago challenging a damage award by a U.S. District Court in Chicago in 2007 of more than $37 million to compensate consumers for their losses fromTrudeau’s violation of a 2004 Federal Trade Commission settlement. Trudeau has repeatedly claimed that he doesn’t have assets to pay the fine despite compelling evidence to the contrary and jailings for contempt.
An informative summary of Trudeau’s activities is available in the Skeptic’s Dictionary. Stephen Barrett, M.D. provided a detailed analysis of Trudeau’s infomercial for his bestselling book Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About. The New York State Consumer Protection Board warned consumers: “From cover to cover, this book is a fraud.” Hundreds of complaints about Trudeau are posted at Ripoff Report.
#2 & #3. Toby Carl McAdam and Greta S. Armstrong
These individuals, doing business under various company names, illegally marketed more than 40 unapproved new drugs and adulterated or misbranded dietary supplements. Several of the products were corrosive salves (commonly referred to as “black salves)” that contain bloodroot and other caustic substances. Corrosive salves are unsafe against skin cancers and, unlike standard skin cancer treatments, their therapeutic effectiveness is not established. Other products marketed by McAdam and Armstrong included oils and capsules claimed to be therapies for breast cancer, asthma, anemia, epilepsy, and other serious diseases.
Beginning in 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) repeatedly warned Armstrong to stop illegally marketing unapproved drugs. Despite repeated FDA inspections and warnings, McAdam and Armstrong broke their promises to stop and continued to promote their nostrums.
In November 2013, McAdam and Amstrong were found in civil contempt for violating a 2010 consent decree. under which they were ordered to stop illegally marketing unapproved products for the treatment of cancer and other serious diseases. The prohibition included all topically-applied products derived from bloodroot or graviola plants.
The judge’s 2013 order required McAdam to: (a) immediately cease all manufacturing, processing, packaging, labeling, holding, selling, and/or distributing all products intended to be ingested by, or applied topically to, humans or animals, including any drugs and/or dietary supplements; (b) immediately shut down his website and the Risingsun Herbal Health Facebook page; (c) remove all products from Amazon.com, (d) remove any related telephone listings from phone books unless the FDA permits him to resume business, and (e) pay $80,000 in liquidated damages plus $4,936.48 for attorneys’ fees.
#4. Brandon Lee Babcock, D.C.
This chiropractor pitched a bogus nutritional cure for diabetes. But, as reported December 9th, 2013 by The Salt Lake Tribune, his scheme bilked older adults in Utah of thousands of dollars. To recruit patients, he offered free gourmet dinners where attendees were shown video testimonials and given information about Babcock’s supposed “diabetes breakthrough.” He tricked patients into signing papers that established lines of credit with Chase Health Advance and he maxed out the $6,000 limit when patients tried to withdraw from his services. Some patients testified that Dr. Babcock and his staff misled them into signing up for credit without their knowledge or consent. Others said Babcock refused to provide refunds despite a 30-day opt-out guarantee and a promise of 100% satisfaction.
In 2008, the Utah Department of Occupational and Professional Licensing (DOPL) issued a “non-disciplinary cease-and-desist order” after finding that he advertised treatments for conditions he wasn’t qualified to treat: depression, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, learning problems, attention deficit disorder, allergies, hormone replacement relief, sleep problems and memory loss.
In April 2012, the DOPL suspended Babcock’s chiropractic license by emergency order. In August 2012, West Jordan City revoked Babcock’s business license. The Salt Lake Tribune noted, however, that he continued to lead seminars promoting his program to reverse Type II diabetes.
In October 2013, a jury convicted him of six third-degree felony counts of exploiting a vulnerable adult. In December 2013, he was sentenced to six months in jail.
#5: Carol Ann Ryser, M.D.
Dr. Ryser, operated Health Centers of America (HCA) in Kansas City, Missouri. The HCA Web site described the clinic as “dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of chronic illnesses,” providing an “integrated approach” that combines traditional and alternative medicine. Although Dr. Ryser had been board-certified in pediatrics, HCA’s main focus appeared to be on diagnosing and treating “chronic Lyme disease” with long-term antibiotics, an approach criticized by the Infectious Disease Society of America.
In March 2013, she surrendered her medical license and agreed to shut HCA down as part of joint agreements under which she and her husband Michael pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion.
The Missouri Courts case register indicates that since 1997, Ryser and/or HCA were listed as a defendant in more than 35 cases and that she and/or HCA had 16 judgments recorded against them. Eighteen of the suits were malpractice actions filed between August 2005 and April 2012.
An ongoing malpractice suit alleges that she (a) diagnosed a woman with Lyme disease, hypercoagulation, lupus symptoms, beta strep, infections, and other disorders, (b) told her that she had “bugs’ living in her “biofilm,” and (c) used inappropriate lab tests to persuade her that she had diseases and health problems that she did not actually have.
Dr. Ryser’s plea agreement bars her from ever practicing again or owning or working in any capacity for any health care provider. The agreements also include payment of $51,789 in restitution and recommended sentences of 24-30 months of imprisonment for Michael and 6 months of home detention followed by 30 months of probation for Carol. Quackwatch has additional information and document links.
#6. Ronald R. Wempen, M.D.,
Dr. Wempen operated the Environmental Medical Center of Orange County, California, where he offered non-validated uses of chelation treatments.
In 1998, he was charged with gross and repeated negligence in connection with his management of a female patient. Documents indicate that he failed to take an adequate history, failed to perform an adequate physical examination, treated the woman for several conditions without evidence that she had them, failed to investigate when lab tests showed that the woman showed signs of intestinal bleeding, and failed to maintain adequate records. Wempen settled the charges by signing a consent agreement under which he was ordered to pay $8,000 for administrative costs, serve on probation for five years, undergo an assessment of his medical skills, and complete 40 more hours per year of continuing medical education courses than were required for license renewal.
In 2009, the Medical Board of California charged him with gross and repeated negligence, failure to maintain adequate and accurate records, and failure to release medical records on request. The charges were based on his management of a woman who died in 2010 after taking Captomer (DMSA), a chelating drug that Wempen had prescribed without adequately investigating whether it was appropriate and whether she could tolerate it. After the woman died, Wempen told an insurance company that her records had been lost; yet he subsequently sent a copy to the medical board. The charges were settled in 2013 with an agreement under which Wempen surrendered his license.
#7. Jeffrey Piccirillo, D.O.
Like Ducktor #6, Dr. Piccirillo has engaged in aberrant practices of diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease. In 2011, The Chicago Tribune and the South Bend Tribune reported on his activities.
In June 2013, under a settlement with Iowa Board of Medicine , he was required to pay a civil penalty of $10,000, placed on indefinite probation, and prohibited from treating Lyme disease. Iowa’s action was based on charges from 2012 that he had (a) diagnosed patients with Lyme disease despite the fact that they did not meet standard diagnostic criteria, (b) treated these patients with long-term intravenous antibiotics even though such treatment is not recognized as medically appropriate, and (c) engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a female patient.
Dr. Piccirillo had practiced orthopedic surgery beginning in 1994, but that led to numerous lawsuits from patients and their families. Around 2008, he attributed his severe hand tremors to his self-diagnosed “chronic Lyme disease.” In 2009, following charges of professional incompetency and practice harmful or detrimental to the public in his orthopedic practice,” he signed a settlement agreement with the Iowa Board of Medicine prohibiting from practicing surgery under his Iowa license. He was also fined $5,000, prohibited from doing surgery, and placed on indefinite probation subject to counseling and monitoring of his medical practice and his mental health.
After being disciplined in the state of Iowa, Dr. Piccirillo, was placed on probation in Illinois beginning September 22, 2009; on August 2nd, 2013 his license to practice in Illinois was suspended for engaging in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a patient under his care. (See Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.)
#8. Jonathan V. Wright, M.D.
Like Trudeau, Dr. Wright has a record that gets him entry into the Hall of Shame for Lifetime Contributions to Duckstorism.
He was the president of the American Quack Association, which operated between 1985 and 1989. From 1993 to 1998, he helped lead the National Health Federation, an organization that promote “freedom of choice” in health matters, which is doublespeak meaning: opposition to consumer protection laws against marketers deceptively promoting non-validated and invalidated products and services to consumers.
He is founder and medical director of the Tahoma Clinic, in King County, Washington. The clinic’s Web site describes Dr. Wright as “a pioneer in holistic medicine and bio-identical hormone replacement therapy” and as “a for-runner [sic] in research and application of natural treatments for healthy aging and illness” who “has taught natural biochemical medical treatments since 1983 to thousands of physicians in the USA, Europe, and Japan.”
In May 2013, the Washington Medical Quality Assurance Commission suspended Wright’s license for 90 days, to be followed by 30 months of probation, and ordered him to pay a $7,500 fine after concluding that he engaged in unprofessional conduct by:
- employing at his clinic Roby Dean Mitchell, M.D., an unlicensed physician whose Texas license was permanently revoked in 2005
- failing to cooperate with the Commission’s investigation of Mitchell’s wrongdoing
#9. David Steenblock, D.O.
This osteopathic physician practicing in Mission Viejo, California, has claimed that he’s the “Number One Leading Expert in Stem Cell Therapies in the United States” and that his “stroke program has proven clinically effective in helping over 2,000 patients since 1991 due to the synergistic use of the latest and best treatments available for healing the damaged blood vessels and brain tissues of survivors.” A Medline author search for Steenblock yields a grand total of zero papers from this supposed number one leading expert. If he has solid clinical evidence of helping over 2,000 patients, he’s doing an excellent job of hiding it.
According to the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), stem cell treatments have well-established effectiveness in treating only a few diseases, but Steenblock promotes stem cell treatments outside of clinical trials for anti-aging, atherosclerosis, cardiomyopathy, congestive heart failure, myocardial infarction, peripheral artery disease, colitis, muscular dystrophy, kidney failure, COPD (emphysema), diabetes type I & II, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury, stroke, arthritis, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, sports injuries, macular degeneration, optic atrophy, and retinitis pigmentosa.
Dr. Steenblock claims to practice “personalized regenerative medicine,” but that seems mainly to involve offering a wide variety of aberrant services for which clinical evidence of promoting regeneration is lacking.
Instead of presenting evidence from rigorously designed clinical trials to support his “personalized regenerative medicine” approach which involves such commonly misapplied treatments as EDTA chelation, hyperbaric oxygen, and many others, Dr. Steenblock offers testimonials, which ISSCR identifies as a warning sign for patients to consider. Perhaps Dr. Steenblock really doesn’t take the testimonials or many of the assertions he makes on his websites seriously. He offers this disclaimer:
The use of stem cells or stem cell rich tissues as well as the mobilization of stem cells by any means, e.g., pharmaceutical, mechanical or herbal-nutrient is not FDA approved to combat aging or to prevent, treat, cure or mitigate any disease or medical condition mentioned, cited or described in any document or article on this website…. In addition, any testimonials appearing on this website are based on the experiences of a few people and you are not likely to have similar results….
Since the testimonials note positive outcomes, I guess that means that positive outcomes aren’t likely.
As noted by Stephen Barrett, M.D., Dr. Steenblock has been disciplined four times by his state licensing board–most recently in February 2013–and is currently on probation. He has been found to engage in gross negligence, repeated negligent acts, excessive prescribing of treatment, failure to maintain adequate records, and falsely advertising board certification.
#10. Malcolm Hooper
In 2007 a man with cerebral palsy had sought treatment from Hooper with the hope that it it would make him suitable for stem cell treatment at an overseas clinic. (Guess whose clinic?) Within nine months, Hooper administered about 230 hours of hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) treatment and about 70 hours of treatment with a Lokomat, a robot-assisted walking device that can help some disabled people walk. The patient was billed more than AU$50,000.
In 2012, the Chiropractor Board of Australia concluded that chiropractor Hooper had made unsubstantiated claims on his clinic Web site for HBO and Lokomat and had misrepresented the likelihood of helping the patient. The Board ruled that Hooper was guilty of professional misconduct, unprofessional conduct, and bringing the profession into “undeserved ill-repute.” In 2013, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) upheld the ruling, reprimanded Hooper, canceled his registration, disqualified him from reapplying for registration for two years, and ordered him to pay the costs of the proceedings.
#11. David Ray Toftness, D.C
Dr. David Ray Toftness’s dirty deeds were his efforts to carry on the work of his uncle, Irwing N. Toftness, D.C. (1909-1990), the developer of a hand-held instrument called the Toftness Radiation Detector consisting of a plastic cylinder containing a series of plastic lenses. Irwing claimed that the instrument could be used to detect emission of low-level radiation from the body in order to identify areas of “nerve interference” that chiropractors call subluxations. A redesigned version of the bogus instrument was given the name Sensometer.
In the early 1980s, the FDA obtained court orders (1) banning the sale of Toftness Radiation Detectors and similar devices in interstate commerce and (2) ordering Irwing and the Toftness Post-Graduate School of Chiropractic in Cumberland, Wisconsin to notify all buyers to return the unapproved device. However, some chiropractors have continued to use the device and some of them faced disciplinary actions. (See ducktor #12.)
In 2005, the FDA discovered that the unapproved devices were still being shipped by the Toftness Post-Graduate School of Chiropractic, Inc. in Amery, Wisconsin and its sole shareholder, officer, and director: David Ray Toftness. In 2007, the agency conducted a search during which 96 instruments were seized.
In May 2013, David and the school pleaded guilty to shipping unapproved devices in interstate commerce. In August 2013, a federal court ordered David to pay a $5,000 fine and the school to pay a $50,000 fine in connection with their conviction for illegally distributing unapproved diagnostic devices.
In March 2013, the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners cited Dr. Manago for negligence and fined him $500 for using a Sensometer (see ducktor #11) to diagnose and treat patients.
In 1997, the Board charged him with gross negligence, repeated negligence, incompetence, and excessive administration of diagnostic or treatment procedure. The accusation stated that, in 1993, he gave a “free examination” to a 3-year-old child, made unwarranted diagnoses of four conditions, told the father that immediate treatment was needed, and convinced the father to purchase a $342 prepaid “service agreement” for 23 or more visits. The case was settled in 1999 with a stipulation under which Manago admitted that he had failed to take an adequate history and agreed to be publicly reproved and to pay $3,000 for the cost of investigating and prosecuting the case. The other allegations were dismissed.
The activities of the dirtiest dozen aren’t unique. Duckstorism is widespread, often lucrative financially, and a menace to population health and society. Numerous promoters of woo, nostrums, and superstition violate consumer protection laws with impunity.
It would be wrong to describe the dirtiest dozen as representing the tip of the duckstorism iceberg only because icebergs are mostly hidden from view while ducktors operate in the open, largely unrecognized for what they are. Like Kevin Trudeau, many ducktors are bestselling authors and television celebrities with huge fanbases.
An optimal response to the ducktor menace requires: (1) improvements to consumer protection law (such as replacing the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act of 1994); (2) stop federal endorsement of the misleading concept of complementary and alternative medicine; (3) improvements in enforcement of existing consumer protection laws; and (4) promotion of real, healthy skepticism in place of unhealthy cynicism.
- William M. London is a specialist in the study of health-related superstition, pseudoscience, sensationalism, schemes, scams, frauds, deception, and misperception, who likes to use the politically incorrect word: quackery. He is a professor in the Department of Public Health at California State University, Los Angeles; a co-author of the college textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions (ninth edition copyright 2013); the associate editor (since 2002) of Consumer Health Digest, the free weekly e-newsletter of Quackwatch; one of two North American editors of the journal Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies; co-host of the Quackwatch network’s Credential Watch website; and a consultant to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He earned his doctorate & master’s in health education, master’s in educational psychology, baccalaureate in biological science, and baccalaureate in geography at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and his master of public health degree from Loma Linda University. He successfully completed all required coursework toward a Master of Science in Clinical Research from Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, but he has taken way too much time writing up his thesis project: an investigation of therapeutic claims and modalities promoted by chiropractors in the City of Los Angeles.