Teen's death hastened by practitioner who had bogus diplomas
Seattle Times staff reporters
DAVID M. BARREDA / ASSOCIATED PRESS
THE FLANAGAN FAMILY
ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
How to protect yourselfConsumers can research medical devices and practitioners, including their training and any disciplinary record.
Practitioners: To validate a license or check for any disciplinary actions or complaints, call the Washington Department of Health at 360-236-4700 or go to www.doh.wa.gov and click on "Provider Credential Search."
Medical devices, companies:
• Search FDA databases of medical-device manufacturers and their registrations: www.fda.gov/cdrh/databases.html
• Search an FDA database for warning letters: www.fda.gov/foi/warning.htm
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• Find out whether an institution is accredited through the U.S. Department of Education (DOE): www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation/; Find out whether an institution or non-degree program is accredited through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation: www.chea.org/search/default.asp
Licensed naturopathic doctors: The District of Columbia and these 14 states consider naturopathy a licensed profession requiring a degree from a four-year college accredited by the DOE: Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington.
Their teenager was facing an excruciating death from cancer. His parents searched frantically for a way to ease his pain.
David and Laura Flanagan of suburban Denver believed they found that, and more, in the office of Dr. Brian O'Connell. O'Connell assured the Flanagans he could not only relieve 18-year-old Sean's suffering from late-stage bone cancer, he could cure Sean as he had others.
O'Connell's treatment of choice: photo luminescence, a form of "energy medicine" using light waves. O'Connell would take a vial of blood from Sean's body, expose it to ultraviolet light from a device, then inject the treated blood back in a hydrogen-peroxide solution. Although the treatment was unconventional, the Flanagans took comfort in O'Connell's charisma and in his impressive credentials as a naturopathic doctor.
"The certification and accreditations were plastered all over his wall," David Flanagan said. "There wasn't a bare spot. Everything seemed legit."
Everything was not.
Two days after Sean's treatment by O'Connell began, the young man was rushed to the hospital with an infection caused by the injection. Six days after that, as O'Connell administered another round of treatment, Sean begged, "Please, God, no more." The next day, Dec. 19, 2003, Sean died — about six months sooner than his medical doctors had predicted.
His parents felt particularly devastated that Sean would miss having his dream fulfilled by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which was planning a trip for him.
"My son wanted to go to Hawaii and lay in a hammock under a palm tree," David Flanagan said.
But even in their sorrow, the Flanagans never suspected O'Connell was anything less than he claimed to be. It wasn't until months later — when they saw him on television, being led away in handcuffs — that they discovered they had been cruelly duped.
O'Connell, 35 at the time, had been arrested for practicing medicine without a license. After the Flanagans told law-enforcement officials Sean's story, criminally negligent homicide was added to the charges. O'Connell was convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
But what of that wall of degrees and certificates in his office? It was a facade of legitimacy. O'Connell had no formal medical or government-accredited naturopathic training.
Rather, The Seattle Times has found, he and scores of other "energy medicine" practitioners are graduates of a multimillion-dollar industry that gives them deceptive credentials.
These people buy the appearance of legitimacy through an international network of unaccredited health-care schools and murky trade associations.
Many operators of "miracle machines" have used sham credentials to lure unsuspecting patients into expensive, dubious and sometimes-fatal treatments.
The Times found:
• At least 104 unaccredited schools dole out alternative-medicine degrees or certifications that are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Most operate only through the Internet or by mail order. The largest alternative health-care school in the United States, Clayton College of Natural Health, is an unaccredited home-study program that claims it has issued more than 25,000 degrees.
• Some of the largest and seemingly independent health-care credentialing organizations are in fact controlled by one of two businessmen — one in Las Vegas, the other in Texas. Their organizations are mail-order factories that issue professional titles and hand out accreditations to more than 100 schools.
• Many buyers of energy devices receive credentials and certificates from manufacturers who operate or sponsor training programs. Device operators use these titles to market themselves as health-care practitioners.
Meanwhile, the alternative-medicine schools that are accredited by the federal government are dismayed by the explosion of untrained and uncertified operators.
"They are using smoke and mirrors to confuse people by not disclosing the truth behind their accrediting agencies and their institutions," said Dr. Jane Guiltinan, a naturopathic clinical professor at Seattle's Bastyr University, one of the five schools of naturopathy that are accredited by a federally recognized institution.
Guiltinan is president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), an organization that requires that its members graduate from a four-year accredited college.
"To argue that you don't have to have any training for diagnosing or treating patients is absurd," she said.
Las Vegas credential mill
Naturopathy is a burgeoning health-care discipline. Its practitioners prefer natural remedies, such as supplements, to pharmaceutical drugs, and they avoid invasive measures.
"Naturopathic doctor" is one of the most coveted credentials in alternative medicine. Fourteen states, including Washington, consider naturopathy a licensed profession and require degrees and clinical training through four-year colleges accredited by the U.S. Department of Education.
But in the other 36 states — including Colorado, where Brian O'Connell practiced — naturopathy is not considered a government-regulated profession. In those states, anyone can call himself or herself a naturopathic doctor with no training.
One of the framed certificates on O'Connell's wall was from the American Naturopathic Medical Association (ANMA). Impressive-sounding, to be sure — but it comes from a Las Vegas post-office box. The businessman who founded the organization in 1981 has feuded for years with AANP and the mainstream, state-licensed naturopathic community.
Donald Hayhurst, 71, is the godfather of mail-order health-care credentials. He has issued thousands of credentials to practitioners, and he accredits some schools.
Hayhurst has doled out 4,000 ANMA memberships, at a cost of $350 apiece. Each year, its members attend a convention in Las Vegas that includes speakers, training and products. More than 1,000 people attended this year's convention at the Riviera Hotel & Casino, where vendors aggressively pitched dozens of energy devices, lasers and herbal concoctions.
ANMA board member Eliezer Ben-Joseph said the organization fends off constant challenges by conventional doctors and state-licensed naturopaths.
"Some people say we're fake," he said. "I can't convince them, and if they don't want to participate, good-bye."
Hayhurst would not return phone calls from The Times.
He claimed to have graduated from the Utah College of Naturopathic Physicians. However, there was no evidence the school ever existed, the Nevada Board of Naturopathic Healing reported after investigating him. It prohibited Hayhurst from practicing naturopathic healing, Nevada documents show. The Colorado Association of Naturopathic Physicians provided those documents to The Times.
Four years earlier, he had formed the American Naturopathic Medical Accreditation Board. Under this flag, Hayhurst accredited schools and later issued credentials such as "board certified naturopathic physician."
In 2003, Hayhurst split off that part of his organization. A man operating in Missoula, Mont., now doles out naturopathic credentials to people who pay nearly $700 and pass an exam.
One of the correspondence schools that received Hayhurst's accreditation was the Herbal Healer Academy of Arkansas, where Brian O'Connell, the Colorado man convicted of negligent homicide in the case of Sean Flanagan, obtained his naturopathy degree.
The school came under fire, and no longer issues the degrees.
Hayhurst's chief competitor is Donald A. Rosenthal, 56, who orchestrates a network of accreditation and credentialing organizations around the world. That network claims to include more than 4,000 members and nearly 100 health-care schools.
Rosenthal said he has degrees as both a medical and a naturopathic doctor. But he is not a licensed doctor in any state. His degrees were issued by schools that are not accredited by the Department of Education.
Rosenthal maintains a low profile from a small office in Galveston, Texas, the base of his parent organization, the American Association of Drugless Practitioners. After a bankruptcy in the 1990s, he lives in a $78,000 home near town.
Many energy-medicine operators nationally have certification from Rosenthal and describe themselves as "drugless practitioners." Rosenthal said the idea for this designation was developed in 1990 when he talked with chiropractors who sought a way to bolster their professional credentials.
Becoming a member of the association is as easy as faxing in a brief application with a photocopy of a driver's license and $260. In return, applicants are issued certificates that declare them a Board Certified Holistic Health Practitioner.
One man who took advantage of this ease of certification from Rosenthal was Ralph Mitchell, who parlayed his "drugless practitioner" title to draw patients into his Greenhouse Health & Wellness Center in Molalla, Ore. Mitchell, who called himself a naturopathic doctor, used unproven energy devices to treat seriously ill patients.
Among those devices were an ion footbath called Body Cleanse, which purports to extract toxins from the body, and a skin-response biofeedback device made by BioMeridian that Mitchell used to diagnose medical conditions, state records show.
The Oregon Attorney General's Office investigated Mitchell and found that the medical conditions of clients worsened under his care. In September, Mitchell agreed to pay $25,000 to the state and is now prohibited from practicing medicine.
For schools wanting accreditation from Rosenthal, the process is just as simple. They are required only to mail a copy of their curriculum, and a fee. Rosenthal does not visit the school or interview owners, instructors or students, he said.
Some of the schools accredited by Rosenthal include the Academy of BioEnergetics in Utah, the Energetix College of BioEnergetic Medicine in Georgia and the Florida Vedic College.
None of the institutions is accredited by the federal government.
For instance, the Holistic Healers Academy was opened in 2002 and operates from a post-office box in Convent Station, N.J. Home courses cost $160 each with subjects such as "advanced energy healing."
Co-founder Kristen Lauter doesn't rely on Rosenthal just for accrediting her academy. She is Certified Holistic Health Practitioner #76892201 — a credential issued by Rosenthal.
And her bachelor of science degree came from Clayton College of Natural Health of Birmingham, Ala., the nation's largest unaccredited alternative health-care school. Clayton boasts accreditation from both Rosenthal and Hayhurst.
Founded in 1980 by Lloyd Clayton Jr., the college offers home-study courses that range from $4,300 to $6,400, for degrees from natural science to holistic health.
Clayton officials said the college fulfills a mission to provide quality training to students who do not desire a traditional four-year education.
Practitioner shut down
"Miracle machine" manufacturers have joined the credentialing game, too.
At least a dozen energy-device companies have created training programs that dole out health-care titles and credentials that are then used to bolster credibility with patients.
One such beneficiary was Joyce Tasker of Colville, in Eastern Washington. In June 2003, an Oklahoma physician reported to the Washington State Department of Health that Tasker was engaged in the illegal practice of medicine, based on material he found on her Web site.
When questioned by state investigators, Tasker produced a certificate, embossed with a gold seal, from the American Institute of Energy Medicine, which certified that she was a Technician of BioEnergetic Medicine.
The institute's address is the same as Star Tech Health Services of Orem, Utah, an energy-device distributor.
Later, investigators learned that a Star Tech employee traveled to Tasker's home, showed her how to use the unproven device and awarded her the certificate.
A state investigation found that Tasker charged $125 to test patients with a computerized skin-probe system, the Orion, which she purchased for $12,500 from the Utah company.
"She said people send a sample of their blood or saliva and she tests them at her home. She said she has a computer program installed in her home computer that tests the frequencies of the blood or saliva," according to a state investigative report.
Tasker then took vials containing water and alcohol, used the device to transmit radio frequencies to the mixture, then sold them as potions that could help the body balance itself, state investigators said.
Tasker denied that her actions constituted the practice of medicine, but the Washington State Court of Appeals determined her actions were improper and ordered her to stop.
Tasker did not respond to The Times' request for comment.
Other device companies opt for a different strategy.
The International Quantum University of Integrative Medicine, in Honolulu, is linked to federal fugitive William Nelson, the Budapest-based manufacturer of the EPFX machine.
Nelson registered the machine with the FDA as a biofeedback device, but he and many practitioners claim it can diagnose and cure disease.
The EPFX correspondence school in Honolulu is accredited by one of Hayhurst's organizations. The school's long-distance learning courses cost up to $6,000 and offer credentials such as "Quantum Naturopathic Certification" and "Biofeedback Certification."
Barbara Murphy, a retired Boeing employee, operates an EPFX clinic in Tukwila. She advertises herself as a Certified Biofeedback Specialist. Her credential was issued by a group of EPFX owners, the Natural Therapies Certification Board in Black Mountain, N.C.
As thin as their credentials may be, these energy-medicine practitioners cling vigorously to them.
Even Brian O'Connell, now serving time in the Huerfano County Correctional Center in Walsenberg, Colo., for his role in the death of Sean Flanagan, continues to call himself a naturopathic doctor.
The teen's father, meanwhile, pleads with government officials to do something to protect other desperate families from being victimized by fake medical professionals. He wants all states to pass laws to license the practice of naturopathy.
"You don't have to have a life-threatening situation to be desperate," said Flanagan. "Someone who has tried all the medical treatments, drugs or can't function — those people are just as desperate as we were. A process needs to be in place to protect people from this."
Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Michael J. Berens: 206-464-2288 or email@example.com. Staff reporter Sonia Krishnan, researchers David Turim and Gene Balk, and intern Eric Ball contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company