NCAHF Home Page

John H. Renner, M.D., 1932-2000

William T. Jarvis, Ph.D.

We regret to announce that NCAHF president, Dr. John Renner passed away following emergency heart surgery on Saturday, September 2, 2000, at St. Joseph's Health Center in Kansas City, Missouri. John is survived by his wife Diana; daughter Andrea Simon and husband Jody of Los Angeles, son Craig and wife Lynn of Madison, Wisconsin; and two grandsons.

John was born in 1932, in Newtown, Indiana. He and Diana both grew up in Auburn, Indiana. He graduated from Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, and completed medical school at George Washington University. John practiced in rural Virginia for a decade before taking a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin where he helped found the Department of Family Medicine and served as a Professor and Chairman. In 1980, he and Diana moved to Kansas City and started the Family Practice Residency at St. Mary's Hospital (now Trinity-Midwest). He also was a co-founder of the National Patient Education in Primary Care Conferences that are now in their 22nd year of service. At the time of his death, Dr. Renner was a Clinical Professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Medical School, Chief Medical Officer of, and President of the National Council Against Health Fraud.

When John's big heart stopped, America lost a national treasure; patients and health consumers lost one of their most important advocates; his family lost a husband, father, and grandfather; and NCAHF lost an insightful, wise, and productive colleague. For me personally, it was like losing a brother. John and I talked almost daily about NCAHF issues and possible solutions. His insights and advice will be sorely missed as we seek to serve the needs of consumers and patients who face a wild and woolly health marketplace. His extensive library and quack device collection have been donated to NCAHF, the Center for Inquiry, and libraries in and around Kansas City, Missouri.

I met John in 1983 when he invited Stephen Barrett, M.D, Victor Herbert M.D., J.D., and me to participate in the Sixth Annual Conference of the Project for Patient Education in Family Practice entitled "Fact, Fiction and Fantasy In Health Information for Patients," at St. Mary's Hospital of Kansas City. It was the first time I met Victor Herbert face to face, and the first time that the three of us appeared together on a speakers' platform.

John immediately recognized the importance of our antiquackery efforts. His keen insight into the problems patients with persistent health problems face caused him to appreciate that providing information and guidance on quackery was often missing in patient education. The reason for this being that most forms of quackery are esoteric and complicated and doctors are too busy to investigate each and every off-beat idea. Being reluctant to talk about things they do not understand, most doctors shrug off quackery with rather superficial answers. Such does not satisfy patients who are searching everything they hear about. Further, the quacks are very good at rationalization and in making their methods seem plausible. John contacted NCAHF and stated that he wanted to be a part of our mission.

John became an ex-officio member of the NCAHF Board of Directors in 1984 by virtue of establishing the Kansas City Committee and Health and Nutrition Fraud and Abuse. Soon afterward, he opened the Consumer Health Information Research Institute (CHIRI) in Kansas City and devoted his full energy toward public and professional education, with an emphasis on exposing quackery and fraud. At various times, he hosted a local radio program, wrote a column for The Kansas City Star, and assisted law enforcement agencies as a consultant. In 1987, he became an elected member of the board. He served continuously and in 1998 was elected president of the organization and began editing our newsletter.

John used his conference planning and executive skills to put together two national conferences on health fraud in 1988 and 1990. The 1988 National Health Fraud Conference was sponsored by the FDA and St. Mary's and Trinity Lutheran Hospitals in Kansas City. For several years, CHIRI was headquartered in a four-story building that housed an enormous journal reprint collection and a unique bookstore in which every book was marked with a colored dot indicating whether it was reliable or unreliable. During this period, CHIRI was headquartered was a four-story building that housed en enormous journal reprint collection and a unique bookstore in which every book was marked with a colored dot indicating whether it was reliable or unreliable.

John not only gave his time and talent, but poured a substantial amount of his personal financial resources into establishing and maintaining a home for his consumer health and patient education work.. Quacks try to discredit antiquackery activists by claiming that we are tools of the medical establishment and funded by drugs companies and other "vested interests." This statement is a deliberate lie intended to divert attention from our criticisms of their worthless methods. In John's case, nothing could have been be further from the truth. He subsidized CHIRI and his other antiquackery work with more than $300,000 from his own pocket. I know no other individual who gave more of his personal assets to advance the cause of providing patients and consumers with reliable health information

John was a splendid fellow with a pleasing personality, quick wit, creativity, and exceptional courage. A patient advocate extraordinaire, he would conduct undercover investigations of suspected quacks. He would pose as a patient and gather evidence of health fraud and abuse. His investigations resulted in actions by medical boards to discipline renegade doctors for unprofessional conduct. For instance, on one occasion he posed as a truck driver and investigated chelation therapy.

One of John's favorite ruses was to disguise himself as a vulnerable invalid (bandaged head and body in a wheelchair) and to attend health expositions that are showplaces for marketing quackery. John would roll up to premier quacks and engage them in conversation. He once completely fooled the individual we think of as "King of the Quacks." A circle of devotees had gathered with John in the midst of the action. When the quack King put his hand on John's shoulder during the conversation, John responded with great adulation: "You touched me! You are the first doctor who has touched me! Thank you! Thank you!" Although obviously ambivalent about having more contact with this rather strange patient, the Quack King straightened up to strut the superiority he thought John had conferred upon him.

On other occasions, John accompanied reporters to point out what was wrong at health "expos." After many such experiences, John noted that their participants rarely criticized each other's theories and methods. It seemed that there was plenty of room for everyone. One day, after a lecture, John asked the speaker whether his treatment could be taken at the same time as "moonbeam therapy" ­- a method John had invented on-the-spot. "Oh yes," the quack responded immediately, "Many of my patients are taking moonbeam therapy. They work beautifully together."

John was among the first to realize that what is generally described as "unconventional," "complementary," "alternative," "integrative," 'holistic," or "innovative" medicine is actually a manifestation of self-care by patients who are trying their best to take charge of their health problems. Most self-care involves the use of health products -- over-the-counter medicines, dietary supplements, and the like. These may be found at drug stores, health food stores, supermarkets, discount stores or sold through pyramid-like marketing schemes, mail order houses, telemarketing boiler rooms, and television infomercials. Patients also engage in what John termed "extended self-care" when they seek the services of nonmedical providers such as chiropractors, massage therapists, herbalists, nutrition consultants, reflexologists, palm readers, and astrologers to solve physical, emotional, or social problems. Sometimes patients turn to "medical renegades and rascals" (terms John taught us to use) in their desperation or search for speculative therapies.

Patients often realize that these medical mavericks are controversial. But, in keeping with old-fashioned pragmatism, those with persistent problems who do not wish to "leave any stone unturned" are willing to give nearly anything a try and to base their judgment on how they feel. This sounds reasonable to most people. After all, if something appears to help, shouldn't that be enough to justify allowing controversial health care practices to continue to be available in the marketplace? This thinking ignores the problems of patient misperception and deception. Patient misperception includes natural cycles in which symptoms disappear, the placebo (sugar pill) effect, and the positive effects of pep talks by providers and enthusiasm of the doctor's cheerleaders and/or fans. Patient deception involves the use of phony tests to persuade patients that they are getting better even though they may still be experiencing symptoms.

Another patient deception is the "Dr. Feelgood" approach which employs herbal stimulants ("high energy herbals"), tranquilizers or "stress-reducers" to put people in a "mellow-mood." Other Dr. Feelgood methods include massage and bodywork, colonic irrigations, aroma therapies, music therapies, swimming with the dolphins, and so forth. The factor that identifies such practices as quackery is that unsubstantiated medical claims are made for these methods rather than representing them as merely interesting or pleasant experiences. A more dangerous form of patient deception involves the so-called "healing crisis," "homeopathic aggravations," or "detoxification." In such instances, the patient actually is feeling worse. Adverse symptoms are declared to be "good" and alleged to be the "poisons coming out," the disease "retracing its history," or something of the sort. This represents a "heads I win, tails you lose" kind of psychology that benefits the quack If the patient feels better the quack can opportunistically take credit for the benefit, and when the patient feels worse the quack can claim that it is a good sign that things are getting better and will be better in the future. John knew how dependent patients are upon the interpretations of their situations by the health-care providers.

John also realized that some quacks fooled themselves by relying primarily upon subjective clinical experiences and the psychosocial dynamics of the health care setting. Evidence-based medicine has learned to separate illusory healing from real healing by using double-blinded clinical trials. John appreciated the need to practice the art of medicine by paying attention to patients psycho-social needs, to help them move in positive directions including lifestyle changes, engaging in pleasant activities such as gardening or socializing, obtaining pets, getting out of the house, enjoying natural settings, and so forth, but he wanted to help patients distinguish between what felt good and what might actually have a positive effect upon the biology of their diseases.

Tax-deductible contributions in John's memory can be made to the National Council Against Health Fraud, Box 1276, Loma Linda, CA 92354

NCAHF Home Page

This page was posted on March 21, 2001.