Naturopathy: When fake doctors cosplay real doctors

Somebody yesterday was not very happy with my attitude towards naturopaths, as evidenced in my post yesterday about the death of a young woman named Jade Erick due to intravenous infusion of curcumin by—you guessed it—a naturopath. Amusingly, that someone going by the ‘nym of JR said that he or she didn’t “like the tone of this article and it’s complete disregard for naturopaths.” Well, JR, you’re right. I do have a complete disregard for naturopaths because they are quacks who mix a small amount of good advice about diet and exercise with a whole lot of pure quackery (like homeopathy) and sell it to patients as being somehow “natural.”

Basically, naturopaths are fake doctors, but they crave the acceptance of real physicians. Whether it’s because they really believe that they are physicians or because, deep down, they know they are fake doctors, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a little of both. Either way, above all their professional organizations strive for legitimacy in the form of being licensed by all 50 states. They even have a goal of having naturopaths licensed in all states by 2025. But it’s more than that. In states where they are already licensed, their goal is to expand their scope of practice to come close to that of real physicians.

So I can’t believe that I missed this story that was going around a couple of weeks ago from the Denver CBS affiliate about Naturopathic Doctors Illegally Calling Themselves ‘Physicians’:

I can’t resist mentioning here that I think that letting naturopaths refer to themselves as “doctors” or “naturopathic doctors” is bad enough, because most people don’t make that big a distinction between “doctor” and “physician.” Als, their favored abbreviation for their degree of”ND” looks and sounds and awful lot like a real doctor’s degree of MD. Be that as it may, things are a bit different in Colorado than in a lot of states that license naturopaths. For one thing, there is a law specifically stating that naturopaths cannot refer to themselves as “physicians.” The law came about this way:

The death of Sean Flanagan in 2003 touched off a storm. Ill with cancer, he received treatment from a man who called himself a naturopathic doctor practicing in Wheat Ridge.

Sean’s father David Flanagan told CBS4’S Rick Sallinger three years later about his dismay.

“We’ve got people like Brian O’Connell who can claim to be a doctor and use the word, put it on his scrubs, wear a stethoscope like he’s somebody important,” he said.

Although Flanagan died from cancer, Brian O’Connell’s actions may have sped up his death.

He was sent to prison and legislation was later passed by the state to register naturopathic doctors. In the law one point was made very clear: naturopaths cannot refer to themselves by a key word: “physician.”

I had never heard about this case (at least, I couldn’t remember having heard about it); so I did a little Googling. It turns out that O’Connell ran Mountain Area Naturopathic Associates. Consistent with what David Flanagan said in the interview above, in his office O’Connell displayed numerous degrees and certifications claiming he was doctor and a naturopath. In an investigation, the Colorado Medical Board found that O’Connell had no license to practice medicine in Colorado and was not certified as any kind of health care worker. It also turned out that O’Connell’s only medical-related “training” had come from a correspondence school in Arkansas called the Herbal Healer academy. As Naturowatch notes, in 2003 the school’s proprietor Marijah McCain agreed to a consent judgment under which she paid $10,000 and was barred from disseminating certificates stating that the holder is an “ND, NMD,” or similar designation that would indicate that the holder is a doctor or physician.

Naturowatch also notes:

  • O’Connell told the family that he personally had “cured” many patients suffering from the same type of cancer he had. He also showed them a plastic bag containing an object he claimed was a cancerous tumor removed from a patient and claimed that he had a black salve that would draw cancerous tumors from the body. Flanagan had failed a course of chemotherapy and his cancer was progressing. Also, black salve is not just quackery, but disfiguring quackery. It’s a caustic substance derived from plants that literally burns.
  • The family paid O’Connell $7,400 for “photoluminescence” treatments in which blood was removed from Sean Flanagan’s body, exposed to ultraviolet light, and then returned to the body along with a diluted solution of hydrogen peroxide. Both of these, UV blood irradiation and intravenous hydrogen peroxide, are also quackery. Basically, it’s UV blood irradiation combined with hydrogen peroxide therapy.
  • The boy developed a blood infection because O’Connell’s wasn’t exactly careful about sterile technique.


O’Connell also injected this hydrogen peroxide solution into a 17-year-old girl, which caused her to go into cardiac arrest. Another patient of O’Connell’s had terminal liver cancer and was told by O’Connell that a “black salve” compound would pull the cancer out of his body. Instead it created open, bleeding wounds that continued until his death, prosecutors said.

In other words, even though he didn’t have the “ND” degree, O’Connell was a typical naturoquack. Ultimately, he was convicted. In 2006, he pleaded guilty to theft, perjury, criminally negligent homicide, practicing medicine without a license, and 3rd degree assault. As a result, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison, which was a salutary outcome which is all too rare when quacks are prosecuted.

As a result of this case, when Colorado passed a law registering—not licensing—naturopaths, the law made it very clear that naturopaths are not allowed to refer to themselves as physicians. Now, I’m not exactly clear on the difference between licensure and registration, but apparently registration provides for a much less rigorous degree of scrutiny of naturopaths than licensure would. Basically, according to Colorado law, naturopaths who have gone to the top tier naturopathy quack academies, like Bastyr University, and as a result have the “ND” degree can call themselves “doctor” but not physician. All other naturopaths are forbidden from calling themselves “doctor” or “physician.” Of course, one wonders why such naturopaths are even allowed to practice, although I suppose that, despite what “NDs” claim, there really isn’t any substantive difference that I’ve ever been able to find in the level of quackery practiced by NDs or non-ND naturopaths. Basically, licensed naturopaths are no safer than any other naturopath.

Be that as it may, even though the law expressly forbids it, naturopaths gonna naturopath:

Larry Sarner and Linda Rosa of the Colorado Citizens for Science and Medicine conducted a survey of websites and claim most naturopathic doctors violate the Colorado Medical Practices Act and State Statutes.

Sarner said, “It would be almost hard not to believe they are medical doctors given their own discussions of it.”

Some naturopathic doctors claim they are licensed. They can’t be. The state of Colorado says they are simply registered, which carries less scrutiny.

Not surprisingly, Roanne Houck, the president of the Colorado Association of Naturopathic Doctors, makes excuses:

“Well, many of the doctors have moved here from other states such as Oregon or Washington,” she said.

They may be called physicians there, but in Colorado, for naturopaths that’s not allowed.

Naturopathic doctors may now also go by “Registered Naturopathic Doctors” in Colorado after new legislation was passed earlier this year.

That’s nice. It’s still confusing and potentially deceptive, leading patients to think that naturopaths are actually physicians.

Just for yucks, I looked up Houck’s practice website, Gunnison Main Street Clinic. I noticed that it offers the usual naturopathic quackery, such as The One Quackery To Rule Them All (homeopathy), “detoxification,” acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, and something called Ortho-Bionomy®, which is basically a form of osteopathic manipulation that I’d never heard of before.

Of course, at least Colorado doesn’t let naturopaths use the term “physician” to describe themselves. Lots of other states, where naturopaths are licensed and not just registered, do let naturopaths use terms like “naturopathic physician,” the favored term of organized naturopathy. Naturopaths continue to push for this, because they know that language feeds impressions. If they can win the legal right to be called “naturopathic physicians,” chances are that a lot of people won’t know the difference between that and real physicians and that legislators will be more likely to expand their scope of practice to reach their Holy Grail, being considered primary care physicians in all 50 states.