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A Look at Alternative Medicine

Aired February 8, 2006 - 00:00:00   ET


COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello, I'm Colleen McEdwards. On today's INSIGHT, "Lifeline." Why the border between the U.S. and Mexico means the difference between sickness and health for some critically ill patients. We'll look at why some medical procedures are considered out of bounds, but first, this look at some of our top stories for you.
The protests against the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed showed no signs of ending. In Khalat (ph), Afghanistan, five people died as rioting demonstrators protested publication of the caricatures. A large crowd tried to storm a police station and get into a U.S. base. Hundreds marched in a peaceful protest in Baquba, Iraq. They demanded an apology from the Danish government to all Muslims. The cartoons were first published in Denmark back in September.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen says his government should not be held responsible for the cartoons, noting that they were published in a free and independent newspapers. He says the protestors are creating a false picture of his country. Other world leaders are also speaking out publicly.

Jordan's King Abdullah says while anything that attacks Muslim sensibilities needs to be condemned, protestors should express their views peacefully.

And after talks with King Abdullah, U.S. President George W. Bush also weighed in on the controversy.


GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: We reject violence as a way to express discontent with what may be printed in a free press. I call upon the governments around the world to stop the violence, to be respectful, to protect property, to protect the lives of innocent diplomats who are serving their countries overseas.


MCEDWARDS: Hamas is warning Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas not to make any changes in the government without first consulting its leaders. Political chief Khalid Mashal (ph) also insisted that Hamas will not bow to international pressure to recognize Israel.

In Washington for talks Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had a warning of her own. She said a Palestinian government led by Hamas could be designated a terrorist state if it still refused to renounce violence.

Well, ballot counting is under way in Nepal following an election marred by violence and an extremely low voter turnout. Several people were killed in attacks by Maoist guerrillas and one protestor shot to death by soldiers. The rebels, political parties and the monarchy have been in a violent struggle for control since King Gyanendra seized power last year.

And those are the latest headlines. Stay tuned now for INSIGHT.

(voice-over): A famous woman's battle with cancer. Like so many others, Coretta Scott King was searching for hope when she turned to an alternative healthcare clinic in Mexico. But some people say these clinics that are beyond the borders of traditional medical science may be a dead end.

(on camera): Hello and welcome. I'm Colleen McEdwards. When it is a question of life and death, many of us look for answers in unconventional places. For terminally ill people in the United States, hope, a last hope, often, can sometimes lie just across the border in Mexico. Alternative therapies and treatments not sanctioned by the medical establishment are practiced in some clinics.

Coretta Scott King went to a Mexican clinic for treatment for ovarian cancer after doctors in the United States said her cancer was terminal. The widow of the civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died at the clinic. As Drew Griffin reports, it was a journey made by many others as well.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It bears little resemblance to what most Americans consider modern medicine. A two story, non-descript building on a dirt road outside Tijuana, Mexico. And yet it is here, the founder says, hopeless medical cases can find treatment.

KURT DONSBACH, HOSPITAL SANTA MONICA: Welcome to Hospital Santa Monica. The largest alternative holistic hospital in North America. We're a little different from most hospitals, as you'll soon see.

GRIFFIN: He calls himself Dr. Kurt Donsbach and depending on whom you ask, the man starring in his own promotional video who claims to be able to treat incurable diseases, is either a crook and a fraud or a person performing medical miracles.

This clinic 16 miles south of the border claims to specialize in everything from arthritis to weight loss. From chronic fatigue syndrome to cardiovascular disease. Alternative treatments many patients say they just could not get in the U.S.

Coretta Scott King was brought here for advanced cancer treatment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All in all, we specialize in chronic, degenerative disease conditions for which mainstream medicine has no answer.

GRIFFIN: Adriana Morones says the only answer she wants is why her sister died here.

ADRIANA MORONES, SISTER OF PATIENT: I wish I had the power to just close my eyes and shut it down and save people's lives.

GRIFFIN: Her sister, Dulce Medina (ph) was a 41-year-old electrical engineer. She had a successful career. A loving family. And a weight problem. Last September she checked into Hospital Santa Monica seeking a weight reduction treatment. She was to have a balloon inserted into her stomach.

MORONES: She wasn't terminally ill or anything. She wanted to lose weight.

GRIFFIN: According to the doctor who signed her death certificate, Dulce Medina died of a heart attack shortly after checking in. Her sister doesn't believe it.

MORONES: The receptionist or whoever answered the phone says we no longer perform that procedure and the doctor's not here anymore.

GRIFFIN: What do you think about this clinic?

MORONES: I think it's a fraud. It's a scam.

GRIFFIN: Since her sister's death, Adriana has found the clinic founder, Kurt Donsbach, has a checkered past, complete with fraud, criminal convictions and dead patient. Last week she was shocked to learn someone as famous as Coretta Scott King was also a patient here. King was here for four days. According to a brief statement from the hospital, she received no treatment and died while under evaluation.

You would have liked to have probably have talked to the King family before they went down there. What would you say to them?

MORONES: I'd say don't go there. I'd say find other measures. Anything you can do but go down to that clinic.

GRIFFIN: Criticism of the King family's decision to send their mother to the clinic has been so strong, daughter Bernice King even addressed the issue during funeral.

BERNICE KING, CORETTA SCOTT KING'S DAUGHTER: I called on the doctors there, there are medical doctors there, contrary to the reports that you may read, be careful what you read in the paper, please.

GRIFFIN: Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired licensed psychiatrist, has spent years giving similar warnings about clinics he calls quackery. He too was shocked when he heard the King family had put their faith in Hospital Santa Monica.

DR. STEPHEN BARRETT, MEDICAL WATCHDOG: I wouldn't go to that place to get my toenails cut.

GRIFFIN: It's that bad?

BARRETT: Yes, sir. And deceptive. I think that Donsbach and many of the other people who operate the shady clinics in Mexico mislead people. I think they give them false promises.

GRIFFIN: On his Web site,, Barrett tracks what he believes are unscrupulous doctors in clinics who prey on the desperately ill. He has been tracking the record of Dr. Kurt Donsbach for 30 years and claims he is no doctor at all.

BARRETT: He doesn't have any medical credentials. He went to chiropractic school, graduated in 1957, got licenses, practiced for a short time, and then basically went into the vitamin business.

GRIFFIN: Since then, Donsbach has been in and out of trouble. In 1971, he pled guilty to practicing medicine without a license. In '73 a conviction for offering to sell new drugs without a permit. In '74 guilty of violating probation. In 1985 he was sent a warning letter from the FDA advising him to stop selling an unapproved drug. In 1986 he was order by the State of New York to stop recruiting students for his non accredited medical school.

(on camera): And in 1996 he was arrested again, this time smuggling unapproved drugs across this border and income tax evasion. Yet with all these strikes on his record and no apparent medical certification, people from America continue to flock across the border seeking his treatment.

(voice-over): We tried to trap Kurt Donsbach at his home on the American side of the border and at the hospital's U.S. corporate office. We were told he was unavailable. And then came a phone call. It was from Kurt Donsbach, who says his lawyer doesn't want him to appear on any cameras. But Donsbach did talk briefly over the phone. He told CNN he no longer owns the clinic, selling it two years ago, he says, to a Mexican doctor.

But he says he visits once a week as a consultant to see patients. He insists he is a doctor with a license from Mexico and tells CNN his clinic "was getting results in people not happy with the treatment they were getting in regular medicine."

Last week, almost immediately after Mrs. King's death, the hospital Santa Monica began drawing intense media attention and attention from local authorities. The Mexican government has shut it down, kicking out the patients, most of them Americans. People like this woman, who says the cancer treatment of microwave technology, vitamins and hydrotherapy have cured her and two of her friends.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One had pancreatic cancer, totally cancer free. Another had colon cancer. Totally cancer free. With no surgery.

GRIFFIN: Asked if he regrets the ramifications of Mrs. King's visit to hospital Santa Monica, Donsbach said simply, "I do not question destiny."

Adriana Morones questions everything that was done to here family members here. Her sister Dulce came to this hospital on the recommendation of her two cancer stricken in-laws. All three were being treated here at the same time. One day after Dulce died, her sister-in-law was gone. Days later, her mother-in-law died, too. Two cancer victims and a woman trying to lose weight. All dead at the Hospital Santa Monica. Drew Griffin, CNN, Los Angeles.


MCEDWARDS: Coming up on INSIGHT, coffee enemas, diets of raw vegetables, injections of animal cells. Do any of these measure up to a doctor's prescription and would you take them if it were your life on the line. We'll have more on this right after the break. Don't go away.


MCEDWARDS (voice-over): For generations, the sick have searched for miracle cures. In the 1950s, several alternative healthcare clinics were built in the city of Tijuana, along the border with Mexico and the United States. Actor Steve McQueen went to one such clinic in 1980 for a treatment made from apricot pits that was not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He died from cancer.

(on camera): Welcome back. The scientist Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin when mold grew inside his Petri dish. In fact, many medical breakthroughs come from some surprising places. So why, then, do some people see alternative medicine as a form of quackery instead of theories yet to be proven.

Joining us now to talk more about this is Dr. Wallace Sampson, a professor at Stanford University and an editor of the "Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine." Doctor, is this quackery?

DR. WALLACE SAMPSON, STANFORD UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR: Well, what you've been talking about in the first segment certainly is quackery and most of the so-called unproved therapies which people would like to think might give rise to some miraculous - not miraculous but unusual positive effects, most of them are so implausible as to be discarded now, I think, by any reasonable person.

There actually is no cancer or other cure that's from out of these types of ideas. And there's a reason for that and the major reason is that the people across the border in these clinics as well as people who market these supplements and others in the United States pick only things that don't work. They do things that physicians don't do. That way they're guaranteed no competition and it's very difficult to prove them wrong.

MCEDWARDS: Has there ever been a case, to your knowledge, though, because you do hear the claims of success. Has there ever been a case, to your knowledge, where an alternative therapy has actually helped someone, has actually cured someone?

SAMPSON: No, there's no case on record, as a matter of fact, that can't be attributed to some other cause. And that's one of the tricks to investigating these testimonials or anecdotes is that there is usually a reason lurking in the background that the relatives of the patients don't tell you about. We make a practice of examining the medical records in detail and very, very few, maybe one time in a hundred thousand you'll find an unexplained remission, and that's about the incidence of unexplained remissions.

MCEDWARDS: All right. So let me put it to you this way, then. If you can't demonstrate a benefit in your view, is there any harm done, particularly in the case of a terminally ill patient, the one getting all the attention now is Coretta Scott King. If you're going to die of cancer anyway, is there any harm done in just trying something out there?

SAMPSON: Well, it depends on what the thing is you want to try. If you want to try a vitamin pill or two, prayer or positive thinking or things like that, I don't think anyone's harmed by that .

MCEDWARDS: Well, what's wrong with me going to Mexico to a clinic that says they can help me?

SAMPSON: Well, what they do down there is they usually want somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 dollars total. About a tenth to half of that in advance so they will probably milk you for most of what - cash that you have on hand and many people mortgage their homes to go down there so they will take all of the money that you can possibly come up with and then when you run out of money you are discharged. You're not discharged when you're cured. You'll stay there until you die or until near death, until you run out of money.

So if you want to get involved in a rip-off scheme, it's a con artist scheme, then that's up to the person. But think of all that's lost of that. Relatives are deprived of people's estates. They're left in debt that they have to pay off. The people never get to resolve their relationships with their loved ones. They never - the patients that go down there don't resolve their own deaths. They never come to terms with living and dying, and these are major, major social problems that we in medicine are giving attention to.

MCEDWARDS: That's OK. I think that's your cell phone going off and it happens to the best of us here. I've got mine beside me, too, but I remembered to shut it off. So I'll give you a moment to turn that off.

Is leaving it up to individual choice OK here, do you think, or is there a need for some kind of regulation?

SAMPSON: Well, we've regulated here in the United States. The problem is that Mexico has a different social order. The reason those clinics are over across the border is that we, as part of the Cancer Advisory Council for the State of California drove them over the border. We prosecuted people for giving laetrile and other fraudulent methods. So they're over there but there's a different social attitude down in Latin America generally but mainly in the border towns of Mexico.

And incidentally, I must tell you that the Mexican medical establishment, the standard physicians in Mexico practice medicine of extremely good quality. Every bit as good as the United States in various places and they disregard these clinics. They scoff at them. They say that they're rip- off places for the Americans and Canadians, just like we know they are.

MCEDWARDS: So is the answer in educating the public, then, do you think? What needs to be done?

SAMPSON: Well, I think we're trying to do as much education as possible but there is a phenomenon that occurs here that is resistant to education and that's when people get involved in what's essentially a cult. They become resistant to advice. They become resistant to all sorts of pleas to reason and they become convinced that there's a conspiracy of physicians and the system and the FDA and goodness knows how many other organizations, conspiracy to keep a cure from the public.

And they actually believe this and they get it socked into their belief system and nothing can dissuade them. Then they go down there and spend their money and you're left holding the bag.


SAMPSON: That's the way it works.

MCEDWARDS: Dr. Wallace Sampson, we have to leave it here, but thank you for your thoughts. I really appreciate it.

SAMPSON: You're welcome.

MCEDWARDS: Dr. Sampson.

We have to take a short break here on INSIGHT but when we come back, call it tourism with a twist if you will. Why the newest vacation getaway might be a hospital not so very near to you. We'll explain right after the break.


MCEDWARDS (voice-over): It's a bargain but at what price? A facelift in the United States can run about $5,000. In Thailand, the price tag for the same procedure is only $1,200. In many countries the old family doctor is losing business to the budget rates and exotic appeal of medical tourism.

(on camera): Welcome back. A trip to the hospital isn't what it used to be. Some countries, like India, Thailand and the Philippines, are banking on people traveling to their countries not only for a nice vacation, but some surgery as well. It's actually called medical tourism. For the price of a plane ticket and a fraction of the cost of surgery in the United States or Europe, you can add rhinoplasty or even a kidney transplant to your next vacation itinerary.

This is a lucrative business that is, of course, not without controversy and joining us now to talk more about this trend is Leonard Karp, CEO of Philadelphia International Medicine.

We call it a kind of tourism, what would you call it?

LEONARD KARP, PHILADELPHIA INTERNATIONAL MEDICINE: I would call it taking care of some very serious ailments. We shy away from the term "medical tourism." Typically the patients that we see here in the United States are people with cancer, people with heart disease, people who are fighting for their lives in many cases so I would hardly call this tourism.

MCEDWARDS: Yeah. And I confess it's probably one of those phrases that sort of got coined by the media and has just sort of stuck. But that aside, we still do see cases of all types. The serious types that you've talked about, but also people who maybe want to go to South Africa to get that facelift because it's - they're going to pay half the price for it. What are the risks?

KARP: First of all, what I would suggest if I were looking for a place to take advantage of the price differentials, one is see if the hospital is accredited. There is an international accrediting body. So number one I would absolutely only go to a hospital abroad that has accreditation.

Number two, I would try to get some data about their success or outcomes, how many times the operating team has performed that surgery. But when you try to do that, I'll forewarn you it's going to be very difficult to get that kind of information because it doesn't exist in many countries other than here in the United States.

MCEDWARDS: So you sort of have to go on a wing and a prayer.

KARP: Emphasize the prayer.

MCEDWARDS: It's hard to quibble with the value of bringing an ill child over from Iraq to Atlanta for some special surgery on spina bifida, that kind of thing. But when it comes to the more elective procedures, do you think this kind of international trade, almost, if you will, should even be allowed?

KARP: Sure it should be allowed. We provide, in Philadelphia last year we treated - we had about 4,200 - we call them patient encounters, patients from other countries came here for care and much of that care is not available in their home country or if it is available it may not be provided with the skill that is provided here in Philadelphia. In many times in other countries you may be able to have a physician who is very highly trained but the rest of the team may not be as trained as the physician, so the nursing staff may not have the skills.

So what we're seeing here in Philadelphia is people who are seeking care that isn't available, it's at a certain risk level. That certainly should not be stopped.

MCEDWARDS: OK. But when it's a case where the care is available, where it's not something that's extra special. If it's a routine procedure. People keep citing the examples of plastic surgery, people going to Thailand or wherever, where you could easily get it done in your home country, it's just that it's going to cost you more. What are the implications of that? Is the medical profession concerned about patient care and also just losing business to other international hospitals?

KARP: Well, first of all I think you're exaggerating the impact of Americans seeking care in other countries.

MCEDWARDS: It's just not happening that often?

KARP: It does happen. It absolutely happens. But not to the level that we're reading or hearing today in the media. And I'll give you an example. There's a hospital in Bangkok that claims that it sees 50,000 American patients a year. Well, I just told you in Philadelphia, and the hospitals that own Philadelphia International Medicine are among the best hospitals in the United States, including the Children's Hospital at Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center - we - I just told you that we saw 4,200 patient encounters last year.

So I Bangkok they're saying they have 1,000 American patients a week. I don't think that that's accurate.

MCEDWARDS: The numbers don't add up - the way you see the numbers coming in, they don't add up.

What is the great opportunity here if I can put it to you that way? And get away from this notion of tourism, notion of people going for elective procedures, but what's the great opportunity in what could be a real global medical community, if you will?

KARP: Sure. I'm glad you asked that, Colleen. There are many opportunities. One is as other economies in other countries are expanding, one of the first demands of the emerging middle class is better quality of healthcare. We in Philadelphia and my counterparts at Johns Hopkins, at Cleveland Clinic and many of the other American academic medical centers, are going around the world and helping other hospitals and other health systems to improve their quality, improve their outcomes, develop data and improve what's available for local populations.

The other opportunity is that we're also going abroad and planting our flag, so to speak, developing and designing hospitals that we'll be operating and managing in other countries.

MCEDWARDS: Leonard Karp, we have to leave it there. Thank you.

KARP: Thank you for having me.

MCEDWARDS: It's been great talking to you. Enjoyed it. Leonard Carp. And that is it for this edition of INSIGHT. I'm Colleen McEdwards. The news continues right here on CNN.



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