Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Monday, February 28, 2005

The quack catcher

The Salem News
Online Edition
Monday, February 28, 2005

The quack catcher

By Julie Kirkwood
Staff writer

Dr. Robert Baratz decided to skip a shopping trip with his wife and mother-in-law on a visit to Chicago.

To fill the free time, he attended a lecture by Hal Huggins, a dentist promoting the idea that mercury poisoning from dental fillings was causing multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and acne.

Though skeptical, Baratz intended to sit in the audience and listen quietly.

But when Huggins put up a slide of a white blood cell called a neutrophil and mislabeled it a lymphocyte, Baratz pointed out the error.

Baratz did, after all, have a doctorate in anatomy and cell biology and was a professor at Boston University School of Medicine.

Later in the lecture, Huggins showed images of a patient whose acne had been cured by having his dental fillings removed. Baratz again objected, pointing out that the patient did not actually have acne but rather a classic skin allergy that is not caused by metal toxicity.

"He sort of stumbled across something and jumped to the wrong conclusion," Baratz said.

Thus began Baratz's mission to publicly debunk fraudulent medical claims. After the lecture he began to get calls, give speeches and testify in court, first on dental fillings and then on a wider range of topics.

Two decades later, Baratz is president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, which he runs out of an office on Foster Street in Peabody.

"He's probably the most educated health professional in the world, and he's brilliant," said Dr. Stephen Barrett, who founded the council in the early 1980s, not long after Baratz spoke up at the lecture.

Baratz, who lives in Newton, is a dentist and a medical doctor, as well as a scientist with a doctorate. He spends the majority of his time at South Shore Health Center in Braintree treating patients and gathering evidence in fraud cases.

One of his most recent missions was an unsuccessful attempt to convince a Cincinnati newspaper not to give a Lifetime Hero Award to Henry Heimlich, inventor of the Heimlich maneuver.

Heimlich took credit for the choking-rescue technique when it was actually invented by a colleague, Baratz said. And Heimlich's more recent research was shut down by the Food and Drug Administration because he tried to treat Lyme disease, cancer and HIV patients by deliberately infecting them with malaria.

Baratz's other recent cases have involved victims of chelation therapy, a technique of treating autism and other diseases with intravenous infusions of a fluid alleged to soak up supposed heavy metal contamination.

Baratz is an outspoken critic of chelation therapy, which he said has been shown in several studies to have no effect.

He also is critical of homeopathy, herbal remedies, acupuncture, reflexology and chiropractic.

These techniques, even the ones that appear to be harmless, are more than a waste of money, he said.

"Misdirecting people from proper care is also a harm," Baratz said.

Richard Craven of Pelham, N.H., knows this firsthand.

His wife, Lucille, sought treatment for breast cancer from a chiropractor instead of having the surgery and chemotherapy her oncologist recommended.

She didn't tell her husband about her diagnosis until she had been trying alternative therapies for two years.

As part of those alternative therapies, she was given an imported substance called 714X to inject into her body and spent thousands of dollars on a device with two headlights on wands.

By the time her husband found out she had cancer, it had metastasized.

She died four months later, a few days before her 55th birthday. She felt betrayed, Craven said, because she found out her chiropractor's other patients were getting chemotherapy in addition to his treatments while he had discouraged her from trying it.

"Losing Lucille was an emotional disaster from which I am slowly recovering," Craven said.

"It's still hardly believable because we didn't get to fight her disease together. I and her family still discuss how a bright, energetic, educated person made such a lapse in judgment."

The chiropractor is still practicing, Craven said, and he can't sue because his wife willingly sought the treatments.

To the extent the National Council Against Health Fraud protects patients from shunning life-saving care and holds hoax practitioners accountable, David Sollars, clinical director and acupuncturist at FirstHealth of Andover, said he agrees with its mission.

"I think the reason they exist, to take a look at these and protect the consumer, makes sense," he said.

But to paint all alternative therapies as fraudulent is just as erroneous as assuming they all work, Sollars said.

"What the public needs to know is you can't lump integrated medicine into one pile," he said.

Still, while therapies at Sollars' practice are subjected to clinical study and patients are encouraged to see physicians, there are also plenty of frauds — among alternative practitioners and licensed MD's alike — to keep Baratz on his mission.

Not surprisingly, Baratz and his colleagues on the council have some fierce enemies.

One self-proclaimed consumer advocate, Tim Bolen, has created a Web site debunking the debunkers. Baratz believes Bolen is hired by an alternative practitioner to defame them.

Bolen alleges Baratz's credentials are phony and the organization has a failing membership. He also lobs professional and personal attacks at Barrett, the vice president of the health fraud group and founder of Barrett has sued Bolen for liable.

Baratz said he tries not to let it bother him.

"What have I got to lose?" he asked. "Many of these people prey on the desperate, the uninformed. Besides losing your dignity to some degree, you're out a lot of money and you stand to lose your health."