An alternative therapist peddling debunked treatment for cancer has caused outrage and, as Charles Anderson reports, has prompted calls for tighter controls
HER ONLY mistake, she said, was that she cared too much.
As cancer ate away at Yvonne Maine’s skull, the only crime, iridologist Ruth Nelson said, was not giving up on the patient earlier.
But she didn’t. Instead, for 18 months, she treated Maine with alternative therapies after diagnosing her problem by looking into her eyes. Months later, after Maine’s cancer had begun to expose her brain, Nelson continued to warn her client off seeing a doctor. Finally, in 2009, Maine went to hospital. A year later she died.
This week the Health and Disability Commission (HDC) upheld a complaint against Nelson from Te Horo, north of Wellington. It found that Nelson acted unethically by crossing professional boundaries and breached several rights under the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights.
For Maine’s family the decision is welcome but the saga is not over yet. The case has now gone to the Human Rights Review Tribunal, which can impose damages, remedies and costs.
While Maine’s story is graphic, medical professionals say it is not unique.
Medical researcher Professor Shaun Holt said such cases were happening all around the country but few came to the attention of the public.
‘It’s been massively under-reported. I think this is the tip the iceberg unfortunately.’
Head of Waipuna Hospice Richard Thurlow said the increasing encroachment of unproven therapy into the care of vulnerable patients was “insidious”.
“When you have terminal diagnosis your hope levels are quite low so anyone who provides the opportunity for that hope increasing will appeal to those individuals.”
Thurlow, who has a background in pharmacology, said one patient was told to move house because it was on a “ley line” that carried a bad spiritual aura.
“At that time a family is so vulnerable it makes you feel quite sick to the stomach to hear that.”
Oncologist Dr Rob Corbett still remembers Liam Williams-Holloway. In 2000, Liam was five-years-old when his parents refused traditional chemotherapy for the Wanaka child’s cancer. Instead, they fled to Rotorua where Liam was treated on a ‘Rife machine’ that promised to cure the boy’s cancer using “quantum vibrational therapy”.
Police and social workers tried to track them down before they travelled to Mexico for alternative therapy. He died there soon after. Corbett and Liam’s oncologist laid a complaint with the HDC but it was dismissed as he was a third party.
Corbett said most people with a terminal illness would undergo some form of complementary therapy. The difficulty came when the family would accept only alternative therapy.
‘Then you have to look at the evidence for that treatment and almost always I would suggest there isn’t any.’
This year, Mapua GP Tim Ewer received flak from the medical community for offering alternative medicine to a young boy suffering from a rare form of cancer after it was decided conventional medicine would not work.
‘I think it’s reasonable to try and support the person as best as possible, ” Ewer said. “Sometimes that means working with their own paradigm of the world. Some people very much like the natural model.’
Ewer said he often spent time trying to convince patients to undergo conventional therapy but in the end it was a patient’s right to choose.
‘I can’t make them take medicine. No one can. At the end of the day if it’s an adult that is fully compos mentis it is their choice.’
New Zealand Society of Medical Herbalists president Leanne Halliwell said cases like Maine’s threatened to tarnish the reputation of all alternative therapists.
Her organisation had lobbied hard to get members under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act that holds medical professionals legally accountable. Alternative therapists are either self-regulated or not regulated at all.
Nelson, who is not registered with any association, could not be reached for comment. She could still practise as she wanted to. “She [Nelson] could have been registered and still have made poor decisions just like a doctor who has all the training in the world, ” Halliwell said.
Halliwell said it was an opportunity to bring alternative therapists into the framework of the legal health system with real consequences for bad practice.
In 2003, former GP Ricky Gorringe was struck off the medical register and ordered to pay more than $100,000 in fines and court costs after the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal found him guilty of disgraceful and professional misconduct for his treatment of two Hamilton women.
The tribunal said Gorringe’s methods, which revolved around a scientifically unproven test and asking God to kill bacteria, led to unnecessary pain for one of the women as her illness went untreated.
Gorringe is still operating a health clinic in Hamilton which offers bio- energy diagnosis and homeopathy.
However, Holt said regulation was not the answer as that would legitimise practises he says are “ridiculous”.
Instead, he believed the current law was appropriate.
If, as it seemed with Maine’s case, that someone had contributed to her death, the law was simple.
‘There is a clear cut legal case and they should be prosecuted accordingly.