Arizona's homeopathic board is the second chance for doctors who may not deserve one

A Florida doctor lost his license after he was diagnosed as a sex addict — he claimed he could cure his female patients by fondling their breasts.

A Utah doctor lost his license after he illegally prescribed drugs over the Internet.

A California doctor lost his license after he was charged with hiding more than half a million dollars in profits, convicted of tax fraud, and sent to prison.

Another California doctor's license was suspended twice. The first time, he was accused of missing cancer in two patients. The second time, of misprescribing drugs.

Yet another California doctor went to prison and was ordered to pay $15 million in fines after he was convicted of defrauding Medicare by performing unnecessary surgery on the eyes of elderly patients.

And a fourth California doctor had his license suspended, then moved to Arizona and lost a patient. The doctor injected the patient with either cow hormones or sheep DNA (the doctor's given two versions of the story), which caused an infection. The patient died.

In the world of medicine, there are no second chances. A doctor makes a misstep, and a patient can die. That's why the boards that license allopathic and osteopathic doctors — M.D.s and D.O.s, respectively — are so tough, and often criticized for not being tough enough. (See "The Doctor Is Out," John Dickerson, March 6, the first in our "Prescription for Disaster" series.) Lose your M.D. license in one state in the U.S., and you may never practice medicine again. Certainly not in this state.

Unless you know about Arizona's Homeopathic Board of Medical Examiners.

For a few hundred dollars, some extra training (sometimes provided by the board's president himself, for a fee) and a test on the principles of homeopathy, an M.D. or D.O. who likely can't secure another medical license can get a license to practice homeopathic medicine in the state of Arizona. You'll be banned from some procedures, but for the most part, you can go back to practicing medicine — diagnosing patients, prescribing drugs, even performing minor surgeries.

All the doctors listed above — and more — are now homeopathic physicians, licensed to practice by the state of Arizona. (Except for that Utah doctor. He lost his homeopath's license last month after a patient died during a procedure he was not authorized to perform.)

And it's all perfectly legal under Arizona law.

Homeopathy isn't dangerous, per se. The alternative practice began in Germany in 1810. By modern medical and chemistry standards, it's a harmless pursuit because it dilutes chemicals almost to the purity of drinking water before injecting them into the body.

Classic homeopathy uses no prescriptions and is based on a theory that "like cures like" in sick patients. For example, if you're allergic to pollen in the air, a homeopathic physician might take that very pollen, dilute it, and inject you with it. The theory is that a small amount of the problem ingredient will cure you of your symptoms — sneezing, in the case of allergies. Modern chemists say homeopathic injections are so diluted that they have no effect, good or bad.

One popular homeopathic cure, oddly enough, is poison ivy oil. Because poison ivy causes a rash and can cause a fever, homeopathic physicians dilute the oil in alcohol, dilute it again, and use it to treat rashes and fevers. It may seem backward, but that's homeopathy. Homeopathic doctors track which substances help which patients, and then try the same treatments — pollen, poison ivy or otherwise — to treat patients with similar symptoms.

But that hardly matters here, because Arizona's homeopathic license is not always used to practice homeopathy. In fact, none of the doctors in this story were practicing it when they killed or harmed their patients. And, as the Arizona Auditor General found last year, the real problem is that the board is lax when it comes to poor medical treatment, regardless of whether it's considered homeopathic.

Homeopathic doctors can get the D.E.A. authority to prescribe the same drugs an M.D. or D.O. can prescribe, and are allowed to perform "minor" surgeries (for example, a homeopath can perform a vasectomy and administer local anesthesia, but can't perform a breast augmentation or give a patient an epidural) — which have nothing to do with homeopathic medicine. That attracts doctors who can't get, or who are about to lose, their conventional licenses.

Only two other states, Connecticut and Nevada, issue homeopathic licenses. Those states have tighter guidelines for getting a license and give their homeopaths less prescribing and surgical power than Arizona does.

So Arizona's license is a unique opportunity. In effect, the law amounts to a loophole for doctors who've gotten in trouble, or know they'll soon get in trouble, to practice medicine with the initials M.D.h., as homeopathic physicians — even if they don't practice homeopathy.

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John Dickerson
Contact: John Dickerson