The Law Offices of Brian E. Quinn

Unprofessional Conduct: The secret's in the sauce!

We are discussing the kinds of activities that the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine considers to be unprofessional conduct. This list includes both self-evident actions ("Do not practice without a license or during a license suspension") and less obvious actions ("Do not impersonate another doctor.")

At the end of our last post, we were talking about the rule against treating a patient with a "secret method." Here, the physician keeps the treatment to himself and does not report it to the board, even if asked. The rule is about more than an omission. The method must be deliberately concealed, intentionally undisclosed.

For example: In the 1970s, there was an enormous controversy over Laetrile, a cancer drug banned by the FDA.

The American Cancer Society describes Laetrile as a chemically modified form of a naturally occurring substance found, for the most part, in peaches, almonds and apricots. Sometimes Laetrile is referred to as vitamin B17. While it has been around for a while, in the '70s it became a popular alternative to chemotherapy -- Laetrile would kill the bad cells but leave the good cells untouched, resulting in a treatment much less toxic than "traditional" chemo.

The FDA stepped in and barred the sale of Laetrile in 1977. The reason? First, there was no real evidence that it was effective, and, second, treatment carried a certain risk of cyanide poisoning. Laetrile may not be brought into the U.S. and may not cross state lines within the U.S.

There were, however -- and may still be -- physicians who believed Laetrile was the better way to go. Stories went around that patients were traveling to foreign countries to purchase the drug and, when they returned, their doctors would include it in their treatment regimens. There were rumors, too, that if you went to the right doctor, you could get Laetrile -- all very hush hush.

We aren't sure if anyone was ever prosecuted, but we remember that patients who were pleased with the results were extremely vocal critics of the FDA's edict. 

That would be an example of a secret method. Neither the patient nor the physician would offer information to the board or to authorities that Laetrile was involved, and, to avoid a license violation and criminal prosecution, a physician could refuse to answer an inquiry from the board.

Source: American Cancer Society, "Laetrile," accessed December 2014

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