A recent arrest for the unauthorized practice of medicine shows the role that a newspaper article and a website can have on the government's decision to prosecute.
California law allows non-licensed persons to offer certain types of alternative treatments and not be accused of the unauthorized practice of medicine if the law is followed as set forth in California Business & Profession Code Sections 2053.5 and 2053.6. However, unlicensed persons using the term "doctor" and offering to "cure" certain diseases with nutritional supplements subject themselves to exposure to local prosecutors, the FTC and the FDA.
On September 24, 2009, Daryn Wayne Peterson, 37, was charged in Orange County Superior Court with one felony count each of the unauthorized practice of medicine, operating a health care service plan (HMO) without a license, treating cancer without a license, offering an unapproved drug for cancer treatment, and one misdemeanor count of misrepresenting himself as a licensed medical practitioner.
The genesis of the case was a newspaper article. On June 10, 2009, the Orange County Register featured Mr. Peterson in a color-picture article on the front page on the Life/Wellness section of the newspaper titled "A rejection of Western medicine with subheading, Clients swear by natural treatments, but many others doubtful." An online version of the article was headlined “‘Natural doctor’ says he can cure cancer, AIDS.”
The Register article discussed how Mr. Peterson charged his clients for listening to his approach to wellness, and how he encouraged them to drop their health insurance plans in favor of his “natural health insurance” plans, which the article said did not cover hospitalization or lab tests but did give patients a discount on vitamins and other supplements that he sold. The Register article also quoted a UC Irvine Medical Center oncologist who disputed Mr. Peterson’s assertion that cancer patients who refuse chemotherapy live longer than those who are in remission.
The day the article ran, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office (OCDA) began an investigation into the matter. In a statement, the OCDA said it was “alarmed by the potential health risks to the community and the recklessness of the article” and launched an investigation into Mr. Peterson’s practice. The OCDA's office also alleged that some of the patients featured in the Register article who spoke favorably of Mr. Peterson’s treatments were either friends or his blood relatives.
In the criminal caes, Mr. Peterson is accused of operating Natural Health Care Organization (http://www.naturalhealthcoverage.com/), a website offering “Natural Health Insurance” and claiming to provide pre-paid “subscribers” with unlimited access by email, telephone or in person to their “own Natural Doctor,” who has “success in stopping disease without drugs and surgery.” In the complaint, it is alleged that none of the purported “doctors” listed on the website are licensed to practice medicine in California. Mr. Peterson is accused of posting “testimonials” on the website, claiming to be from “patients,” asserting that Natural Health Care Organization “doctors” have cured diseases including leukemia, diabetes, crohn’s disease, prostate cancer, migraines, and restless leg syndrome.
In the course of the investigation, an undercover OCDA Investigator signed up on Peterson’s website as a potential “patient.” Mr. Peterson is accused of communicating with the “patient” online, and later meeting the “patient” at his apartment in Mira Loma, CA. After hearing that the “patient” had been diagnosed with lymphoma and was scared of the chemotherapy recommended by his doctor, Mr. Peterson is accused of telling the “patient” that he treats many cancer patients, that the chemotherapy would kill him faster than the cancer, and boasted an 88 percent success rate in treating all types of cancer, including Lymphoma. Mr. Peterson is also accused of telling the “patient” that he could “expect almost complete reversal” within one year of taking his “all-natural” vitamins and natural supplements on a daily basis. He is accused of performing a medical examination of the “patient,” including listening to his heart while asking him to breathe and looking in his eyes.
The OCDA's office also says Mr. Peterson of ran a website, www.naturalhealthcoverage.com, in which the “your doctors” section features Daryn Peterson and says he has a “Ph.D., HMD,” with a specialty of “internal medicine, natural medicine, toxicology, immunology and latrogenic diseases.” A catchphrase was listed in the website: “No Disease is Incurable.” The website was still up at the time of the arrest and did not appear to be compliant with the California Business & Profession Code.
Mr. Peterson is accused of offering patients an “insurance” plan or an HMO not licensed by the California Department of Managed Health Care or the Department of Insurance, as required by law. California law prohibits unauthorized and unlicensed businesses from offering pre-paid health services to protect consumers and patients from being defrauded. The law protects consumers from not receiving health care for which treatments were paid in advance.
One of the issues in the case is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the California Department of Health Care Services have not approved any of the supplements recommended by Mr. Peterson for the "treatment of cancer." Doctors are authorized by law to represent that they have an effective treatment for cancer only if the drug has been approved by the FDA. A medical “drug” is defined as anything approved by the FDA for treatment of a specific disease.
Attorney Comments: First, be aware that websites offer government regulators and prosecutors the opportunity to sit at their desks and investigate without ever leaving their offices. The websites offer detailed information which can help make an investigative case. This includes the FTC, FDA, the Medical Board and other regulatory agencies.
Second, there are legal ways in which alternative health care providers who are unlicensed can legally provide services to clients. However, they need to be compliant with the law and especially careful with written brochures and internet websites.
Third, criminal prosecution can devastate one's career and although the potential jail sentences are not lengthy, it can result in the closing of one's office. Practitioners who are alternative need to be compliant with rules and regulations even when it is apparent that their clients or patients understand they are not medical doctors and are not promising "cures" or "treatments" for diseases but are instead focused on preventative medicine and enhancing health.