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Quack Patrol at Your Service

Medicine: Dr. Stephen Barrett is out to rid the world of 'stupid,' 'loony' people who would take advantage of us all.

March 23, 1998|MARK FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Dr. Stephen Barrett bought a little green box that plugs into the wall and pumps out miracles. When a sick person grips an electrode, the gizmo figures out which organ is failing and which homeopathic potion will fix it.

That is, at least, the general idea.

"I've wanted a device like this for 10 years," said Barrett, chortling as he showed off the machine in his basement office. "It's a total fake."

The Vegatest I, built in Canada but banned for import into the United States, is the latest and perhaps kookiest addition to the massive archive of alternative medicine that Barrett has spent the past three decades stuffing into the cellar of his suburban home.

Barrett, a 65-year-old retired psychiatrist, is part of a small posse of traditionalist doctors fighting the relentless march of alternative medicine into the mainstream. Once seen as essential warriors against medical fraud, they now find themselves struggling for attention as one new therapy after another--whether it's eating an herb to ward off a cold or taking shark cartilage to survive cancer--gains popular acceptance.

These skeptics, who operate out of offices and homes and universities from here to Loma Linda, argue that nothing should be marketed as a treatment or cure until it has withstood the rigors of conventional clinical research.

While they believe that taking a vitamin under a doctor's orders can be a good thing, they also believe Americans have been duped into megadosing and medicating themselves.

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Many physicians hail the skeptics as heroes. But increasing numbers of doctors are adopting alternative therapies that may not offer a cure but may make the patient feel a little better about being sick.

In an attempt to keep a voice in the debate, Barrett and his colleagues in the past year have begun publishing a medical journal devoted to the skeptical study of offbeat medicine and have unleashed a huge World Wide Web site--dubbed Quackwatch--that is a clearinghouse of criticism of popular but unproven therapies. They also are involved in several lawsuits against people they accuse of making misleading medical claims.

Inside a maze of file cabinets in Barrett's basement is much of the ammunition for Quackwatch. This is the research Barrett used for 44 books, hundreds of articles, and scores of complaints and court cases in his crusade against what he considers the misleading marketing of everything from aromatherapy to Zen macrobiotics. He's even gone after granola.

Homeopathy? "There's nothing stupider on the planet."

Acupuncture? "The majority of acupuncturists are loony."

Herbal remedies? Don't get him started.

"Most of the people who prescribe them are screwballs," he said. "Most of the products don't have the ingredients listed so you can see what's in them. Most of the books that are written for the general public are not reliable."

Yet they usually sell better than his own. His fight has been made harder by alternative medicine's recently acquired aura of legitimacy.

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In the past six years, Congress has compelled the National Institutes of Health to add an Office of Alternative Medicine and lifted regulations on alternative medicinal products as long as they are labeled as foods and dietary supplements. The American Cancer Society has approved some of what it classifies as "complementary" medicine. Medical schools have added alternative medicine curricula and more insurers are reimbursing fees for unconventional remedies such as acupuncture.

Perhaps even more significantly, the Internet has turned into a cyber-souk of New Age healers, old-fashioned hucksters, practicing MDs and giant mail-order businesses all shilling elixirs and remedies through eye-catching Web sites.

"I think we've got a serious challenge. The Internet has made it very easy to distribute inaccurate health information," said Dr. John Renner, a University of Missouri professor of family medicine and one of the 100-plus doctors on the Quackwatch board.

Barrett hopes Quackwatch establishes itself as a scientific antidote to what he calls the virtual medicine being practiced in cyberspace. Search for advice on acupuncture, and Web browsers just may come up with a Barrett article criticizing both the practice and an NIH study suggesting there may be merit to it.

"I'm looking at probably the most powerful thing I've ever done," Barrett said of Quackwatch.

The site suggests which books not to read and which therapies and products to avoid. The site also sells books and articles by Barrett and others, as well as Internet guides written by his son. It offers old chiropractic and health-food publications that it calls "examples of the misinformation." And a Los Angeles lawyer who files false-advertising suits on behalf of debunkers has even hung out a shingle there.

Barrett said Quackwatch (http://www.quackwatch.com) also plans to evaluate other Web sites, field consumer complaints and even dispense medical advice.

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