Medical profession, heal thyself

Two bills may give some freedom to doctors who practice alternative medicine, or at least keep them out of jail

Former SN&R cover-story subject Douglas Brodie returns from self-exile to testify on behalf of alternative medicine next week.

Former SN&R cover-story subject Douglas Brodie returns from self-exile to testify on behalf of alternative medicine next week.

Photo By David Robert

On April 20, Dr. Douglas Brodie will return to the state that once labeled the alternative cancer treatments he prescribed as unorthodox, unproven and, later, illegal.

He will testify before legislative health committees on behalf of two bills that, if approved and signed into law, will bring California in line with the bulk of the states in the nation that allow doctors and their patients to choose either conventional or alternative medical treatments for cancer and other diseases.

The proposed legislation—Assembly Bill 2393 (by Assemblyman Ray Haynes, R-Murrieta) and Senate Bill 1691 (by Senator John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose)—would alter sections of the state law to allow licensed California physicians to prescribe natural-health or drugless treatments in place of, or in combination with, conventional treatments for cancer patients, without being subject to criminal prosecution.

Current law prohibiting such practices formed the foundation for Brodie’s decision to leave a successful medical practice in California. The doctor was a controversial figure in medical circles for the 25 years he practiced in the state. During the 1970s, a state regulatory agency targeted him for embracing unconventional cancer treatments such as laetrile, a plant substance found in the pits of apricots and other fruits, over the use of conventional cancer treatments consisting of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

The regulators put Brodie on probation and attempted on multiple occasions to take away his medical license. They never succeeded, but Brodie said the strain of constantly having to fight against a system that discredited and devalued the use of drugless and non-invasive therapies wore on him. (See “Forbidden medicine” by Melinda Welsh; SN&R Cover; May 2, 2002.) He finally pulled up stakes in the late 1970s, moving his practice from Tahoe City to Incline Village, Nev., and later to Reno. Unlike California, Nevada long has embraced physicians whose practices include both alternative and conventional medicine. Shortly after his move to Nevada, the state of California passed a law making it a felony for a physician to offer any substance or procedure to a cancer patient other than chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

The Medical Board of California reportedly has reversed itself internally on the wisdom of such a law but does not have repeal powers. Proponents of the two new bills contend the board’s support of both is seen as critical to the legislation’s passage in both houses.

For the 78-year-old Brodie, the introduction of the new legislation in California is vindication. “I think it’s a real promising step in the right direction,” Brodie said in a recent phone interview from his Reno office. “Both bills look very good.”

Although SB 1691 has been in circulation since February, it has no registered opposition as of yet.

Frank Cuny, the chief legislative advocate and executive director of California Citizens for Health Freedom, hopes the public support from both the medical board and the California Medical Association (CMA) will neutralize any opposition that may arise toward the bills.

“Unfortunately, since AB 2393 is coming out so late, we haven’t had a chance to speak to either the medical board or CMA” about the specifics of either bill, Cuny said. “But just eight months ago, the presidents of both organizations stated public support for the right of physicians to practice alternative medicine and, specifically, provide alternative treatments of cancer.” Calls to both organizations confirmed Cuny’s assertions.

Numerous organizations, including the American Association for Health Freedom, the Cancer Control Society (which specializes in publicizing alternative methods of cancer treatment) and the Congress of California Seniors, have signed on as supporters.

The lobbying arm for the pharmaceutical industry, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), has no plans to weigh in on the issue, according to Merrill Jacobs, deputy vice president of PhRMA. Jacobs said PhRMA would remain neutral because what treatments physicians are allowed to prescribe are governed by the medical profession. He added, however, that “it is important to remember that all our medicine is tested through clinical trials, and alternative medicine has not been.”

Although California enjoys an image as a state embracing all things alternative, it trails behind nearly every state in the nation, including New York, Florida, Louisiana and Texas, in permitting its physicians to prescribe alternative therapies for cancer and other illnesses.

Brodie believes there are those in the medical establishment who have a financial stake in discrediting patients who seek out alternative treatments, as well as the doctors who prescribe them. “It seems to me that the pharmaceutical industry has

lobbied harder in Sacramento than it has in most state capitals,” Brodie said, “because California is such a populous and therefore pivotal state in terms of wielding power.”

Many doctors and patients report that the toxins taken into the body to kill cancer cells through chemotherapy and radiation treatment often do as much damage as good, quickening the decline in quality of life, even for those whose lives are extended.

Many local oncology doctors who have dedicated their lives to the treatment of cancer through conventional means bristle when drugless therapies such as laetrile and vitamins are touted as viable treatments, though there is no science to back up the claims.

Dr. Sidney Scudder, chief of clinical affairs for hematology and oncology for the University of California, Davis, Medical Center in Sacramento, expressed initial skepticism about either bill’s chances for passage if it promotes the use of unproven therapies like laetrile.

“Certainly, there are some adjunctive therapies that are considered alternative but are really more complementary, like acupuncture, that are helpful. I refer patients to such complementary treatments.” But Scudder wants to see the language of the bills and says the medical board or CMA could pull support. “I think there are still a lot of questions about these bills and this issue.”

Still, the good that many alternative therapies provide in response to a variety of illnesses and ailments is being recognized in medical schools throughout the nation whose curricula have added courses in evolving medical treatments, natural health and drugless treatments.

Now, say sponsors of the new legislation, it is time for California to catch up.

Haynes probably isn’t the first lawmaker one would associate with the words “alternative medicine.” Yet, he agreed to carry AB 2393 for Cuny’s group because “doctors, not the government” should make medical decisions.

“We don’t see this as a partisan issue,” said Andrew Mercy, Haynes’ legislative aide who’s working the bill. “Decriminalizing this [puts] decisions in the experts’ hands, not the politicians’, and lets the doctors decide what the appropriate care is.”

Because AB 2393’s language was just approved and has not been circulated yet, no opposition had been registered formally. It is a fair assumption, however, that opposition will come, and supporters of the new laws are pulling out all the stops.

“We’ve been working with the California Medical Board to get [these bills] for three years,” said Cuny. “It’s very simple. We believe that all physicians, allopathic and alternative, should have the same laws to follow. We shouldn’t add on conditions and rules to a physician just because he’s practicing alternative medicine. And someone shouldn’t risk his license because he gives a patient a nonconventional, alternative treatment option.”

For those reasons, Cuny said his organization isn’t completely satisfied with all portions of SB 1691 (some sections attempt to impose additional regulations on practitioners of alternative medicine). But Cuny added that he is hopeful.

Brodie’s and other physicians’ testimony on April 20 may help persuade Vasconcellos and other legislators to modify the bill to bring practitioners of conventional and alternative medicine under the same rules. The fact that SB 1691 eliminates the criminal provision in the business-and-professions code is, in itself, a major step forward, Cuny said.

“There are licensed physicians in this state who are able and willing to practice alternative treatment of cancer but who do not now because they won’t risk losing their license,” Cuny said. “Dr. Brodie, his testimony and these bills will change that.”