Chiropractor crackdown: College gives ultimatum on misleading health claims

There is no acceptable scientific evidence that chiropractors can treat Alzheimer's disease, cancer, diabetes, infertility, infections, autism, ADHD or Down syndrome, according to the College of Chiropractors of B.C.

And yet, some practitioners in this province claim they can, advertising their services for a wide range of conditions that are outside their legally mandated scope of practice.

In fact, two current members of the college's board have both posted online about their expertise in treating autism spectrum disorder and ADHD —  attention deficit hyperactivity disorder​ — contrary to the college's new efficacy claims policy.

Now, the college is giving them an ultimatum. All chiropractors in the province have until Nov. 1 to remove all scientifically unsupported claims from their websites, social media sites and printed advertising, or face potential discipline.

"As a CCBC registrant you are required to immediately review your website(s) and social media accounts and remove any materials that include representations that do not comply with the 'efficacy claims' policy," the college says in a notice sent out earlier this month.

"All such materials must be removed immediately regardless of when they were created or posted."

The notice mentions 11 specific conditions that chiropractors are not qualified to treat, along with all developmental and speech disorders, but says the list is not final, and any claims about chiropractic treatments must be supported by evidence.

The chiropractors' college implemented a new policy on efficacy claims this summer, singling out several conditions that chiropractors are not qualified to treat. (College of Chiropractors of B.C.)

The move comes after a series of CBC stories revealed that some B.C. chiropractors were defying college policy by posting anti-vaccination material to Facebook, according to interim college registrar Richard Simpson.

"In the past year, the college became aware — through media stories, formal complaints to the college and our own analysis of some registrant's marketing materials — that a very small number of the college's over 1,200 registrants were marketing services that were outside the scope of practice for chiropractic health professionals," Simpson explained in an email.

The college has received 19 complaints in the last year about misleading advertisements from chiropractors — nearly half of its total 43 complaints — according to the annual report for 2017/2018.

That's a huge spike from a year earlier, when just one complaint out of 26 was about marketing materials.

But Simpson said most of the complaints this year haven't come from the public — they've been from other chiropractors or internal investigators at the college.

Shake-up on college board

Earlier this year, the vice-chair of the college's board, Avtar Jassal, resigned from his position after CBC reported on a Facebook video he'd created that wrongly suggested smoothies are more effective than the flu shot at preventing influenza.

College policy forbids B.C. chiropractors from providing professional advice on immunization, because they are not trained in treating infectious diseases.

Two other board members, Parm Rai and Gil Desaulniers, had also been the subject of public complaints about their anti-vaccination posts. Both were allowed to retain their positions because they responded immediately to requests to remove their posts.

But Rai and Desaulniers have also posted materials online suggesting that chiropractic techniques can be used to treat autism and ADHD. 

An online advertisement for Gil Desaulniers' chiropractic clinic (left) and a Pinterest post from Parm Rai (right) both claim chiropractors can treat autism and ADHD. (CBC)

Rai and Desaulniers have both decided not to run for re-election to the board this year, according to Simpson, who said he couldn't speculate on why they made that decision. Neither man has responded to requests for comment.

They're not alone in making unsupported claims about treating serious diseases, according to a quick search of the websites and Facebook pages for chiropractors from across the province.

While the majority of practitioners seem to stick strictly to information about spinal and joint health, several make claims about conditions banned by the college's efficacy claims policy. That includes Alzheimer's, cancer, infertility, ear infections, and especially  autism  and  ADHD

That information will have to be taken down by Nov. 1, when the college says it will be completing a "thorough review" of all marketing material. Anything that's still online will be forwarded to the college's inquiry committee for investigation and possible discipline.

Critic skeptical of crackdown

Simpson said he believes the problem is restricted to a handful of chiropractors.

"The vast majority of our registrants follow the professional, educational and ethical regulations of the college," he said.

But Bernie Garrett, a UBC nursing professor who studies deception in health care, said the college's crackdown doesn't go far enough.

"The problem here is that if the college truly cracks down on unsupported claims about the benefits of subluxation [misalignment of vertebrae] treatment, what they will be left with is a profession that practices a form of spinal physiotherapy," he told CBC.

"Whilst this does address criticism of some of the more extremist claims, dangerous practices such as infant chiropractic are allowed to continue."

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