Anti-fraud physician cleared

Complaints dismissed against whistleblower who critiqued alternative medicine research

May 10, 2006
David Secko
The professional organization representing doctors in Ontario dismissed a case against Canadian anti-fraud advocate Terry Polevoy, in which the complainant, a psychologist, argued that Polevoy's criticism of her research on bipolar disorder constituted harassment. The decision, according to experts, raises questions about when academic criticism crosses the line.It's a unique decision that originates out of an equally unique case. In 2004, Bonnie Kaplan, a psychologist from the University of Calgary, filed a complaint to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), directed against the methods Polevoy used to criticize her research on whether a vitamin-mineral supplement called EMPowerplus treats bipolar disorder. CPSO twice dismissed the complaint. Last month, the dismissal of Kaplan's complaint was upheld upon review by the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board (HPARB), said Maureen Baker, a review officer for HPARB. (HPARB is an independent governmental board that reviews the complaint decisions of CPSO and other colleges.) In the decision, provided to The Scientist, the HPARB committee wrote that "it is not its role to decide at what point the expression of an opinion may be considered harassment."The case focuses on the controversial supplement EMPowerplus, whose maker (Truehope) is currently in Canadian court over a Health Canada violation involving a lack of a drug identification number. EMPowerplus is a combination of vitamins and minerals that is touted as a natural alternative treatment for bipolar disorder.A few years ago, Kaplan and colleagues began researching the use of EMPowerplus in bipolar disorder, and concluded that some supplement-users experienced an improvement in their condition. However, Polevoy, who runs several Web sites devoted to uncovering what he feels are cases of alternative medicine fraud, told The Scientist he took issue with this conclusion.Polevoy co-authored an e-book challenging Truehope and Kaplan's research. He also sent numerous letters and emails to Health Canada and Kaplan's hospital and university. In the e-book and letters, Polevoy claimed that Truehope was suggesting that customers stop using non-alternative medication, and that Kaplan's research was using a product Health Canada had concerns about and was not adequately reviewed by the University of Calgary's Health Research Ethics Board. "We thought it was a dangerous thing to allow" this research to continue, said Polevoy. Kaplan was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. But she filed a complaint to the CPSO about Polevoy, alleging he had systematically harassed her by filing "frivolous" complaints with the intention of undermining her research. The issue has raised questions regarding how to decide when academic debate crosses a line, experts say. For Michiel Horn, a Canadian expert on academic freedom from York University, that is a question best left to the courts. "If [Polevoy] believes on good and sufficient grounds that the medication promoted by Kaplan is valueless, he should be free to criticize it and?if she [Kaplan] believes that in the course of criticizing her, he has libeled or slandered her, she has recourse to the courts," Horn told The Scientist.However, James Wright, Surgeon-in-Chief at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, said that the CPSO should also weigh in. "Academic freedom is a very important principle to defend, but there are situations that cross that line," said Wright. "In this case, with a professional outside a university, it falls to the College to decide." In the Kaplan-Polevoy case, HPARB stated that although Polevoy's criticisms were "an enormous burden" on Kaplan, they were "addressed to those with the responsibility to hear and properly investigate such allegations."Jerry Cott, former chief of the Psychopharmacology Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, said that the case was "unfortunate." Current treatments for bipolar disorder are "toxic and often ineffective," he said, and there is a great need for more research in this area, but this controversy may help turn some researchers off from studying alternative medicines. Cott, himself, has studied the use of omega-3 fatty acids for bipolar disorder.Kaplan declined to comment to The Scientist on HPARB's decision. She is continuing research on vitamin-mineral supplements. David Secko dsecko@the-scientist.comLinks within this articleTerry Polevoy http://www.healthwatcher.netBonnie Kaplan, Truehope identification number et al., "Effective mood stabilization with a chelated mineral supplement: an open-label trial in bipolar disorder," Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, December, 2001. PM_ID: 11780873QuackeryWatch Canada's actions against Empowerplus Horn Wright Cott, "Bipolar disorder: Alternatives to lithium," Journal of the American Herbalists Guild, 2003.