Dr. Ross Gordon, president of the American Academy of Medical Preventics, a trade group for chelation practitioners, realizes that his field suffers from an image problem--too often, for good reason.
"It scares the hell out of me, the quality of some of our people," Gordon said recently in an interview at his office in Albany, Calif. He conceded that chelation practices have been known to attract physicians who have been unable to establish themselves in conventional medicine.
Many of these doctors establish what Gordon and others call "mills," or high-volume clinics where chelation therapy is essentially administered to as many patients as can be accommodated.
"We have mills," Gordon observed. "Though fortunately not very many of them. They are a constant threat to me." Across the country, medical license authorities have found cases that underscore the weakness in the chelation field of which Gordon is only too aware. In California, five of the 74 doctors who are listed as members of Gordon's group are veterans of license revocation actions and two more are under investigation in possible revocation cases, license officials said.
While the total is only about 7% of the group's membership in the state, the proportion is far higher than the 1.25% of all California doctors at large who have been subjected to severe disciplinary sanctions. Discipline officials generally concede that they only take action against a small fraction of the total number of physicians who are incompetent or negligent.
Two recent examples--in different parts of the country--underscore the image and quality problems faced by chelation. The first involves Dr. Frank L. Gaunt, who, before his license to practice in California was finally revoked in 1981, established himself as one of the most notorious physicians in the state with a record of malpractice verdicts, patient deaths and injuries and unsuccessful attempts to lift his license that stretched back into the 1960s. His purported practice involved mainly cosmetic surgery.
Gaunt was sued for malpractice 37 times in Los Angeles County alone from 1969 to 1978--court actions that led to more than $2.3 million in judgments against him. Two patients died in his office in Hollywood under questionable circumstances, and, in 1968, an office he maintained in San Jose was raided by drug agents who charged him with smuggling liquid silicone from Japan--disguised as furniture polish--for use in illicit breast enlargements. Gaunt was subsequently convicted of running an illegal hospital and selling drugs.
Moved to the Ozarks
When Gaunt finally was stripped of his license in 1981, medical discipline officials in Sacramento thought they were rid of him. But Gaunt had some insurance for just such a development in the form of a second medical license he originally obtained, in Missouri, when he graduated from osteopathic school in 1954. So, quietly, Gaunt moved to the Ozarks nearly 2 1/2 years ago and went into the chelation business.
He first attracted the attention of local doctors because of the nature of his practice--he claimed to be an expert in preventive medicine--and because he advertised heavily. In Springfield, Mo., where Gaunt moved last year after practicing farther south in a town called Kimberling City, the local Greene County Medical Society immediately began trying to get Gaunt's license revoked because it seemed to local doctors, said Dr. B.G. Prater, a past president of the society, that "this guy was evidently a borderline practitioner from the beginning.
"This is the type of person who's going to end up in chelation or something else like it to make a living. He is not a physician who can make a living like most doctors do."
Dr. Frank Corry, president of the society, agreed, but he contended that chelationists and other fringe doctors are able to establish themselves by selling hope--something mainstream physicians often cannot realistically offer.
The battle against Gaunt continued until two weeks ago today. The Missouri Board of Registration in the Healing Arts first tried to take Gaunt's license 18 months ago, but Gaunt obtained a stay in a county court. Last year, medical board attorney David Brydon noted in a letter to the medical society that "I could not agree with you more that Dr. Gaunt's conduct and practice are atrocious and we do hope to have him out of business very shortly."
Two weeks ago, Gaunt finally surrendered his medical certificate and his practice of chelation apparently came to a close. In a tense encounter with a reporter and photographer from The Times in his office nearly a month ago, Gaunt contended the impending move was only his "retirement." He accused the newspaper (the first of several to focus on Gaunt in 1980 and 1981) of perpetrating a "smear" against him.