Questioning Cancer Quacks

18 / 10 / 2012

Coinciding with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Victoria’s Health Services Commisioner Beth Wilson writes on the dangers of ‘cancer quacks’ and the need for stronger preventative legislation. 

 

I have long held deep concerns about ‘cancer quacks’.  I am referring to people who are prepared to behave unethically – sometimes unlawfully – to gain financial advantage from vulnerable cancer patients. In July 2008, I published the Noel Campbell Inquiry Report which found that Noel Campbell, an ex-dentist providing alternative health therapies to terminally-ill cancer patients, had failed to ensure his patients were given adequate information to allow them to give fully informed consent before treatments were administered. I also found that Noel Campbell failed to ensure that informed consent was obtained from patients, which was in breach of common law and ethical principles.

Campbell’s history as a health services provider is, to put it mildly, interesting.  In 1998, allegations were made to the Dental Board of Victoria that he had, among other things, provided grossly negligent dental treatment to a patient, and prescribed unregistered drugs to five patients without their informed consent. He was found guilty of professional misconduct.  In 1999, he was again charged with professional misconduct for attempting to alleviate facial pain by the rectal administration of ozone. This, and other charges, persuaded Campbell to withdraw his registration as a dentist – which meant the Dental Board ceased to have jurisdiction over him.  He then turned his attention to alternative cancer treatments.

In Australia, anyone can provide health services to people regardless of whether they are registered. Not all providers of complementary health services indulge in unethical or illegal practices. – many are scrupulous about gaining informed consent and informing their patients about whether certain remedies are evidence based or not, and if there are any side effects. Complementary therapies are often used as an adjunct to traditional western medicine and can be very helpful.  The Cancer Council has just published an excellent booklet, Understanding Complementary Therapies, and I was more than happy to participate in this project.

It is an offence for an unregistered person to pass themselves off as being a registered doctor, nurse, dentist or any one of the other registered professions. Noel Campbell, who called himself “Professor” and his clinic “The Hope Clinic”, targeted extremely vulnerable patients with terminal cancer.  Any reader who wants to pursue a literary account of how it feels to witness someone you love being ripped off in this way should read Helen Garner’s novel The Spare Room.  In an exposé on A Current Affair on 22 July 2012, Helen Garner revealed that her novel is about the treatment of a beloved friend by Noel Campbell (the ACA Investigation of Campbell is available on their website).

Treatments used by Noel Campbell included intravenous ozone, coffee enemas, various contraptions made from discarded machinery, light sources and so on. His treatments were expensive and unproven.  One of the recommendations of my Inquiry was that Consumer Affairs Victoria take action against Campbell for misleading and deceptive conduct.  They did so, taking action in the Supreme Court of Victoria.  A judge sitting alone found Mr Campbell had not acted in an unlawful way and it didn’t matter whether his treatments were evidence based or not, so long as he believed what he was saying.  The Court of Appeal disagreed and found Campbell guilty on nine counts.  He was ordered to cease misleading advertising and to place a warning notice on his website.

The Court of Appeal’s decision was welcome but it did not prevent Campbell from continuing his practices; just from advertising them. He has continued with his dubious practices and the Current Affair expose revealed he had sold a terminally ill patient a vacuum cleaner with a hose and a pair of earphones!  You may think ‘oh well people have to be vigilant and check on the bona fides of particular practitioners’, but when you have cancer you are very vulnerable. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October last year.  I was extremely fortunate to have had my cancer detected very early by a routine mammogram – I received immediate treatment and I’m doing fine, thanks to Breastscreen Victoria, whose logo I wear on my repaired bosom every day. The experience taught me many things, including how it feels to become a cancer patient.

I was lucky, many others are not so lucky.  Extreme vulnerability can play on our emotions to the extent that we are prepared to believe anything.  What role, then, does the State have in protecting the public in these circumstances?  It took many years of effort, research, investigation, and legal proceedings to obtain a Supreme Court decision against Campbell and yet he, and others, have continued to provide unproven treatments without gaining informed consent.

I believe the Health Services Commissioner needs additional powers to deal with cancer quacks.  In New South Wales a negative licensing scheme is in existence to allow the Health Care Complaints Commission to prohibit such people from providing cancer and other treatments.  South Australia is also introducing a scheme. Victoria needs similar prohibition power.  The legislation my office works under (the Health services (Conciliation & Review) Act 1987) is currently being reviewed and the willingness of Government to introduce prohibition orders will depend upon the degree of public support for the proposal.  I hope that when I finish up as Health Services Commissioner on 30 December 2012, my successor will be able to take that extra step to protect vulnerable cancer patients by saying to the quacks, “Stop it or be sanctioned”.  The sanctions should include prison sentences where appropriate.

 

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