Consumer Health Digest #06-25

Your Weekly Update of News and Reviews
June 20, 2006

Consumer Health Digest is a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., and cosponsored by NCAHF and Quackwatch. It summarizes scientific reports; legislative developments; enforcement actions; news reports; Web site evaluations; recommended and nonrecommended books; and other information relevant to consumer protection and consumer decision-making.

Chinese stem cell clinic blasted. Researchers who evaluated patients who underwent embryonic stem-cell therapy at a Chinese clinic have issued a warning against going to the clinic. For several years, the Beijing Xishan Institute for Neuroregeneration and Functional Recovery in Beijing, China, has offered stem cell treatment for spinal cord injury, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral palsy, stroke, Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. The Institute is reported to have treated hundreds of patients and to have thousands of people on its waiting list. Its founder/director, Dr. Hongyun Huang, is a neurosurgeon who did research on the biology of fetal cells at Rutgers University and New York University before returning to China. Huang says he injects patients with olfactory sheathing cells (OSCs) obtained from aborted fetuses. The cost is reported to be over $20,000. In 2003, Huang reported on his experience with 171 patients and claimed that OEC transplantation can improve the neurological function of spinal cord of spinal cord injury patients regardless of their age. However, his report contains no raw data, provides few details of the patients' functional ability, did not compare the patients to untreated patients, and limited the patient evaluations to only 2 to 8 weeks after the operation. This month the journal Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair published a detailed report on his results with seven patients whom the authors examined before and one or more times within a year after Huang's treatment. The authors concluded: (a) five of the seven patients had significant complications (three had meningitis), (b) none of the patients showed objective evidence of improvement, and (c) unless Huang conducts a proper study, patients would be ill-advised to undergo his treatment. [Dobkin BH and others. Cellular transplants in China: observational study from the largest human experiment in chronic spinal cord injury. Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair 20:5-13, 2006] A Boston Globe article notes that Huang's Web site includes profiles of patients he has treated for a wide variety of conditions with different causes and different symptoms, yet Huang treats them all with the same cells. [Cook G. Chinese surgeon's claims about cell implants disputed. Boston Globe, June 19, 2006]

Chiropractors sentenced to prison for miscoding VAX-D claims. Eric Topel, 34, of Allen, Texas, formerly of Destin, Florida, and his brother Christopher Topel, 44, of Wichita, Kansas, formerly of Atlanta, Georgia, have been sentenced to prison for health care fraud. Each was ordered to spend 34 months in prison to be followed by 3 years of supervised release that includes 350 hours of community service. Court documents indicate that between 2003 and 2005 the Topels improperly collected nearly $2 million from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia (BCBS) by miscoding claims for patients whom they treated with Vertebral Axial Decompression (VAX-D), a nonsurgical procedure that BCBS considers experimental and unnecessary and does not cover. To execute the scheme, employees were instructed to use CPT Code 64722, which is the code for surgical nerve decompression procedures. VAX-D is an expensive high-tech form of mechanical traction that can relieve some cases of back pain but is widely promoted with unsubstantiated claims that it can correct degenerated and herniated discs without surgery. VAX-D therapy may provide relief for properly selected patients. However, there are good reasons to believe that manual treatment can usually accomplish the same thing more quickly, safely, and less expensively. Chirobase has detailed information about VAX-D.

Study examines unnecessary medical testing. Routine office visits for preventive health exams are intended to identify treatable diseases before symptoms occur and to promote healthy behaviors. However, a study has concluded that more than 40% of such visits result in physicians ordering unnecessary laboratory tests and procedures. [Merenstein D and others. Use and costs of nonrecommended tests during routine preventive health exams. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 30:521-527, 2006] The researchers examined data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey from 1997 to 2002 for office visits for a general medical examination with no apparent illness. The outcome was compared with the recommendations of the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), which recommends against the routine use of urinalysis, electrocardiograms, and x-rays. The researchers concluded:

Percentage of Americans without health insurance coverage is increasing. The Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey, a nationally representative survey of 4,350 adults age 19 and older, has published new data on the health insurance coverage of Americans and the consequences families face when they experience breaks in insurance. [Collins SR and others. Gaps in Health Insurance, An All-American Problem. Commonwealth Fund, April 2006] Its latest survey, conducted between August 2005 and January 2006, found:

The full report can be downloaded from the Commonwealth Fund Web site.

Los Angeles Times hits "holistic dentistry." The Los Angeles Times has described how three women underwent unnecessary and improper dental procedures after being told that problems in their mouth posed serious problems to their general health. Two of the women lost teeth and parts of their jaws after being diagnosed with "neuralgia inducing cavitational osteonecrosis (NICO)," a condition that lacks scientific recognition. The third had 13 teeth extracted after being told that amalgams and root canals were problematic. NCAHF president Robert S. Baratz, M.D., D.D.S., Ph.D., who has appeared as an expert witness in 18 cases involving "holistic" practitioners before state dental boards, said that all were either reprimanded or lost their licenses. [Yi D. Insurers denying claims from holistic dentists. Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2006] "Holistic dentistry," a marketing buzzword,  is sometimes called "biological dentistry."

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This page was posted on June 20, 2006.