“Dr.” Tad Sztykowski: One reason why acupuncture should not be licensed

The weekend was rather busy, and, because I had an obligation to produce material for my not-so-super-secret other blog yesterday, So, uncharacteristically, there wasn’t a post. Yesterday was pretty busy, too; so there almost wasn’t a post today. However, I came across a fun little story (well, maybe not to its subject) that is useful in illustrating the absurdities of licensing quackery. It comes, thanks to one of my Google Alerts, from the local Rhode Island ABC affiliate, and it’s about a man named Tadeusz A. Sztykowski:

Dr. Tad Sztykowski, who owns the centers for integrative medicine and healing in Providence, says he’s been treating patients for three decades.

But he was arrested and jailed recently for practicing acupuncture without a license.

“Good people cannot be punished like this, okay?” he said, fighting back tears.

Sztykowski says he had a Rhode Island license until 2017, when he moved to Florida — where he maintains a license.

Of course, “Dr.” Tad Sztykowski is not a real doctor, not a real physician at all. He’s an acupuncturist. His “degree” is D.Ac, “doctor” of acupuncture. Acupuncture, of course, is a fairly regular topic on this blog. That’s because it’s a form of quackery that seems to serve as a “gateway quackery” in academia, after which follows the more hardcore quackery. The whole concept of acupuncture is that you can somehow heal disease and relieve symptoms by “unblocking” the flow of mystical magical life energy (a.k.a. qi) by sticking thin needles into “meridians,” channels for that mystical life energy that have never been demonstrated to exist or correspond to any anatomic structures, albeit not for the lack of trying by believers in acupuncture. Of course, as I’ve described on more than one occasion, the filiform needles weren’t even used until the 1930s. They were invented by a man named Cheng Dan’an. Before that, acupuncture used large needles much more like lancets, and was very much more like that traditional “Western” medical quackery from centuries ago known as bloodletting. In reality, as described by a Scottish surgeon named Dugald Christie in a book about his three decades working in China from 1883-1913, acupuncture was brutal:

Chinese doctors own that they know nothing at all of surgery. They cannot tie an artery, amputate a finger or perform the simplest operation. The only mode of treatment in vogue which might be called surgical is acupuncture, practised for all kinds of ailments. The needles are of nine forms, and are frequently used red-hot, and occasionally left in the body for days. Having no practical knowledge of anatomy, the practitioners often pass needles into large blood vessels and important organs, and immediate death has sometimes resulted. A little child was carried to the dispensary presenting a pitiable spectacle. The doctor had told the parents that there was an excess of fire in its body, to let out which he must use cold needles, so he had pierced the abdomen deeply in several places. The poor little sufferer died shortly afterwards. For cholera the needling is in the arms. For some children’s diseases, especially convulsions, the needles are inserted under the nails. For eye diseases they are often driven into the back between the shoulders to a depth of several inches. Patients have come to us with large surfaces on their backs sloughing by reason of excessive treatment of this kind with instruments none too clean.

Anyway, that’s the history, and that’s the “healing art” that Sztykowski practices. Apparently both Rhode Island and Florida license acupuncturists, unlike Michigan, although certainly acupuncturists and supporters of quackery are trying to get it licensed here too. As I’ve said time and time again, if you license pseudoscience, what happens is that the quacks are the ones who define that pseudoscience and determine the standards of “practice” for it. In brief, state licensure of quackery legitimizes that quackery.

In any case, Sztykowski is very good at making excuses:

He says a different doctor ran his Providence office with a license, until she suddenly quit in July.

Sztykowski says that forced him to come back to Rhode Island to help for the rest of the summer.

He says he told every patient the same thing up front.

“I have no license,” he said he told patients. “Is it okay with you if I give you treatments? If not, you have the complete right to go home right now, get your money back if you want.”

Yeah, if I let my license lapse and tried to treat patients, I don’t think the state would let me get away with the excuse that I told patients I wasn’t licensed in Michigan.

Personally, I can’t help but observe that it doesn’t matter if Sztykowski was licensed or not. He was practicing quackery based on prescientific ideas about how the body works whose history was retconned under Chairman Mao Zedong into something that could be exported to the West. On the other hand, I can’t help but think that, if you’re going to license quackery and can’t even meet those low scientific standards defined by that quackery, it’s fairly pathetic if you can’t even be bothered to stay licensed.

It also turns out that there was more to the story than “Dr.” Sztykowski lets on. First, to its great shame, a local radio station, WPRO, employed Sztykowski as its health expert. There’s more, though. He had to surrender his acupuncture license in 2017:

WPRO’s healthcare expert — and regular on WPRI’s The Rhode Show — has been forced to surrender his medical license for multiple violations. Dr. Tad Sztykowski agreed to stop practicing medicine in a consent agreement for a range of charges including practicing medicine without a license.

Besides his paid show of WPRO AM, “Dr. Tad” as he is marketed, has also appeared more than a half-dozen times on WPRI’s pay-to-appear day-time show The Rhode Show.

On both radio and TV shows, Dr. Tad always presented him as a physician.

“He is renowned for his superior diagnostic skills which makes his clinic one of the largest and most sought after in the U.S.,” says WRPO’s Website. The show continued on WPRO this weekend although a staff member filled in for Dr. Tad.

Basically, Sztykowski entered into a consent agreement with the Rhode Island Board of Acupuncture to to permanently surrender his Rhode Island license as a Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine as well as to cease to “advise, treat, diagnose, prescribe, or suggest therapies”, alternative or otherwise. Apparently Sztykowski did go to medical school in Poland in the 1980s (that rather reminds me of Stanislaw Burzynski), but he never did a residency and never got a medical license in any state. Moreover, he was very blatant about misrepresenting himself:

The order stated that he presented himself repeatedly as a licensed physician. “In Respondent’s professional communications, including but not limited to advertising, marketing, and promotional materials for the Centers for Integrative Medicine and Healing, Respondent’s professional school of practice shall be designated by the term “Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.”

WPRO’s bio of Dr. Tad claims, “Dr. Tad has delivered more than 5,000 newborns, performed 2,000 surgeries, has treated more than 40,000 patients with both Western Medicine and Oriental Medicine and is a licensed M.D. in 28 Countries.”

In reality, “Dr.” Tad’s practice, Centers for Integrative Medicine & Healing, is a typical quack practice. He treats basically everything with acupuncture, including, it would appear, cancer:

This is basically an alternative medicine cancer cure testimonial, in which a man with what was thought to be a recurrent brain tumor decided to forego chemotherapy and do acupuncture instead. Regular readers have seen these sorts of stories all the time, particularly with Stanislaw Burzynski. Most likely, what happened, was that whatever was seen on MRI was not actually recurrent cancer. It’s impossible to know without a tissue diagnosis, of course, and no surgery was done.

This brings us to the question at the heart of licensing quacks: Who protects the public if quacks are licensed, given that it is the quacks themselves who determine what is the “standard of care” for their quackery? I hate to quote a malpractices lawyer’s site because I am a doctor and my opinion of malpractice lawyers is in line with that of most doctors, but this particular article asked some good questions:

The standard of care thus becomes a central issue for malpractice claims against alternative medicine practitioners. How so? Medical decisions made by CAM doctors cannot be judged against the same standard as methods used by the practitioners of standard medicine due to the very definition of alternative medicine. Otherwise, to administer alternative treatment could be viewed as malpractice in and of itself – after all, it is not common that a practitioner of standard medicine refers a patient to an alternative medicine doctor. Therefore, in the opinion of most courts that weighed in on the matter, CAM practitioners should be judged according to the standards of the field in which they are licensed. This means that an acupuncturist might be charged with medical malpractice if he or she administered a treatment inconsistent with, or outside of the scope of, the established standard of acupuncture, or if they simply made a mistake and injured a patient, for example by inserting a needle too deep and puncturing the patient’s lung. What happens, however, if a CAM practitioner is presented with a patient whose condition potentially excludes an alternative treatment? Does the standard of care require the practitioner to have sufficient knowledge and abilities to recognize this? What if he or she accepts this person as a patient and administers CAM treatment anyway?

The problem with licensing quacks is that the answers to these questions are not straightforward, even though they should be. That’s just one detrimental effect of licensing quackery like acupuncture, both on medicine and the law.