Law & Medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine


Question: Which one of the following statements regarding complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is correct?

Dr. S.Y. Tan, emeritus professor of medicine and former adjunct professor of law at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu

Dr. S.Y. Tan

A. CAM practitioners are just as likely as medical doctors to be sued.

B. Damages arising out of the use of CAM may be compensable if there is clear and convincing evidence of substandard care, and the plaintiff can prove legal causation.

C. An acupuncturist who treats an asthmatic patient will be sued if he/she fails to refer the patient to a medical specialist.

D. Obtaining informed consent after discussing all therapeutic options and material risks is especially important for those who practice CAM.

E. It is not a valid defense that the patient had fully and willingly assumed the risk of treatment.

Answer: D. Compared with medical doctors, non-MD practitioners of CAM pay lower malpractice insurance premiums, as they are much less likely to be sued, and patient injuries are usually less severe.

CAM covers a broad range of healing philosophies, approaches, and therapies that are typically outside mainstream Western medicine. It comprises modalities such as chiropractic, acupuncture, massage therapy, naturopathic medicine, nutritional therapy, and others.

More than half of the U.S. population uses some form of CAM, which is widely perceived as a natural and effective means of promoting overall well being in addition to treating a specific illness. The scope of practice for CAM providers is defined and limited by state rather than federal statutes, and enforced by regulatory bodies.

CAM treatments are generally noninvasive, and there are fewer than 50 indemnity insurers in the country for chiropractors, massage therapists, and acupuncturists, underwriting some 5% of the total medical malpractice insurance market.

In the event of an injury, damages are recoverable if there is a preponderance of evidence to indicate substandard care. “Clear and convincing” is a higher evidentiary level of legal proof, and it is not required in a negligence action. Whether an acupuncturist will be sued successfully for treating an asthmatic patient will depend on many factors, for example, whether it is an acceptable CAM practice in the jurisdiction, whether there is any statutory restriction on such treatment, whether there was a failure of a timely referral, etc.

Finally, assumption of risk is a valid defense in a negligence tort action under some circumstances.

For a negligence claim to prevail, the plaintiff must establish breach of duty, i.e., that the defendant deviated from the standard of care ordinarily exercised by a similarly situated practitioner. In addition to falling below that level of skill, practitioners may also be sued for having failed to refer to a medical doctor, for practicing outside the scope of CAM, or for venturing into traditional Western medical practice.

In one instance, a plaintiff alleged that he was led to believe that chiropractic manipulation would help his diabetes. The court found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded damages.1 In another, the plaintiff successfully sued a chiropractor for failing to take x-rays and refer to a medical doctor. The court held that the defendant fell below the standard of care, as the state licensing board required physician referral when the problem extended beyond the limits of chiropractic practice.2

However, an injured party does not always prevail. In Miyamoto v. Lazo, the plaintiff claimed that Dr. Lazo, a chiropractor, negligently treated his injuries from a car accident.3 The patient was taking Coumadin and developed a hematoma in his left shoulder following chiropractic treatment. This was complicated by neuropathy in his left hand when the hematoma expanded and required surgical drainage.

The jury, however, found Dr. Lazo not liable, because of evidence that a hematoma could spontaneously arise in someone on an anticoagulant.

Injured patients have also filed lawsuits against other CAM practitioners. Allegations against acupuncturists have included cases of pneumothorax, wrongful death in an adolescent girl with asthma, and burns from a heat lamp.4 And in Wallman v. Kelley,a plaintiff developed liver damage and filed negligence and breach of implied warranty claims against a seller of Chinese herbal medicine.5 The court held that the defendant was not liable, as the plaintiff failed to prove causation or give timely notice of suit.

Medical doctors are increasingly incorporating CAM into their practices, so they must adhere to CAM standards in addition to their own medical standards.

In Charell v. Gonzalez, a cancer patient refused conventional treatment by oncologists and opted instead for nutritional therapy by a physician.6 Her cancer metastasized, and she alleged negligence and failure to warn of risks. The jury found the physician 51% liable for departure from standard of care and lack of informed consent. The plaintiff was found to be 49% at fault for choosing to ignore the recommendations of her oncologists.

Even if it’s the patient’s choice, physicians must still exercise due care when implementing therapy.

In Gonzalez v. New York State Department of Health, Dr. Gonzales was charged with gross negligence and incompetence after he used nutritional therapies to treat six patients with incurable cancer who had failed or rejected conventional treatment.7

The hearing committee found that he missed signs of disease progression and failed to perform adequate assessments, testing, and follow-up evaluations. The court held that a patient’s consent to or even insistence upon a certain treatment does not relieve the physician from the obligation of treating the patient with the usual standard of care.

In general, a physician may employ several legal defenses to avert liability following an adverse event.

One defense is to assert the “respectable minority” standard of care, if it can be shown that a respectable minority in the medical community also accepts the treatment in question.

A second defense is assumption of risk. In Schneider v. Revici, a physician delivered nutritional (selenium and dietary restrictions) and other nonsurgical treatment for breast cancer after the patient refused conventional treatments offered by other physicians.8 The patient signed a detailed consent form releasing the physician from liability and acknowledging that the defendant’s treatments lacked Food and Drug Administration approval, and that no results could be guaranteed.

The cancer spread, and the patient sued for common law fraud, medical malpractice, and lack of informed consent. The court of appeals held that assumption of risk is a complete defense to malpractice. The same court also held in another case that a patient’s failure to sign a consent form did not preclude the jury from considering the assumption of risk defense.

A third defense, rarely successful, is to invoke “clinical innovation” when CAM is used to alleviate a desperate situation, for example, if the patient is terminal or has failed conventional therapy. The defendant-physician may plead involvement in a clinical trial study, or show that the unorthodox treatment is based on extensive personal experience or some newly discovered developments in the field.

When discussing CAM, the physician should first fully inform the patient about conventional treatments and their limitations. Next, the physician should explain why the “novel” rather than the recognized conventional therapy is being considered. Finally, whether the physician intends to carry out CAM therapy or refer to another practitioner, the patient must be warned about the potential risks associated with such therapy.


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