Seventeen years after S.K. lost his thyroid gland to cancer, he was promised a miracle: acupuncture could regrow the vital organ.
Kyung Chun Oh, an acupuncturist based in the Toronto area, claimed he’d performed this wonder before, according to a recent decision from the College Of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario.
But Oh told his patient it would only work if S.K. stopped the thyroid medication he’d been on since his surgery in 2003.
Within just a few months of his first visit to Oh, S.K., whose identity is protected by a publication ban, was admitted to hospital with a life-threatening case of hypothyroidism, college documents show. His thyroid had not regenerated. According to the college, that would be impossible.
“It was fortunate that the patient did not die,” a college panel wrote in a March 1 disciplinary decision, suspending Oh’s licence for 12 months.
“Telling the patient that he should not take his thyroid medication was irresponsible and had disastrous repercussions.”
The decision highlights how vulnerable cancer patients and survivors can be to false promises of miraculous results, according to one academic. It comes less than a year after an Ontario oncologist lost his licence for giving cancer patients an unproven “side effect-free chemotherapy” — a case that was cited as precedent during Oh’s disciplinary hearing.
Bernie Garrett, a nursing professor at the University of B.C. who studies deception in health care, argues false claims like these are a particular problem in the world of alternative medicine.
“It is very common for these providers to make claims of unrealistic efficacy for their therapies, such as being able to ‘heal cancer,’ and their regulators often do nothing until it is too late,” Garrett said.
“Cancer patients are also a common target, as they are often desperate to try anything, and many practitioners actually believe in the magical nature of their therapeutics.”
He argues that patients deserve stronger action against misleading claims and false advertising in the medical world.
“We need easier and more effective ways for the public to raise concerns with health-care marketing and provision, and effective sanctions on rogue practitioners. Otherwise, we will see more of this,” Garrett said.
‘Harm and false hope’ for cancer patients
Misleading claims aren’t just a problem in the alternative health world.
In the decision to suspend Oh’s licence, the acupuncture college referred to the case of Dr. Akbar Khan, whose registration as a doctor was revoked by the Ontario Physicians and Surgeons Discipline Tribunal last July for misconduct and incompetence related to a series of offences. That included giving patients a scientifically unsupported treatment he called “SAFE chemotherapy,” at a cost of $4,200 US per cycle.
Khan claimed his chemotherapy alternative was “life-saving” and a “cancer cure” that was more effective than standard chemotherapy, with fewer side effects, tribunal documents show.
Instead, the tribunal said, Khan “exposed his patients to the risk of harm and false hope, and at times, he caused both.”
The discipline decision says Khan’s treatment approach was “based on the unpublished word of one person” — an American physician named Dr. Kenneth Matsumura who is facing allegations of gross negligence in the deaths of three cancer patients — “and what appeared to be his personal beliefs and own biased personal observations.”
Khan ignored evidence that his patients’ cancers were advancing and that his treatment either wasn’t working or was causing harm, an earlier tribunal decision says.
“Almost without exception, Dr. Khan stopped the therapy only when his patients could not take it any longer because they could no longer afford it, their condition had deteriorated to such a degree that they could not tolerate it, they were so ill that they were admitted to hospital or they died,” the tribunal said in a February 2022 misconduct finding.
Khan appealed the loss of his licence in that case, but that was dismissed by an Ontario Superior Court judge last month. In the meantime, the tribunal has also revoked his registration in a second case for, among other things, treating a woman for cancer when she did not actually have cancer.
In an email to CBC News, Khan denied any wrongdoing and called for a criminal investigation into the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO).
“CPSO was on a mission to stop me from providing innovative unapproved cancer therapies that actually worked. Our clinical data proves this beyond any doubt,” Khan said.
“They have done a great disservice to patients of Ontario by revoking my licence, and they have even harmed dozens of patients mentally and physically by taking away their doctor.”
‘Unconscionable, dangerous and negligent’ conduct
When Khan’s misconduct was raised during disciplinary hearings for Oh, the college noted that unlike Khan, Oh’s actions only affected a single patient.
“Similar to Dr. Khan, however, Mr. Oh impugned not only himself, but the integrity and trustworthiness of the entire profession,” the college discipline decision says.
After S.K.’s first appointment with Oh in February 2020, he stopped taking his medications as instructed, and quickly developed symptoms of hypothyroidism, according to an earlier misconduct decision.
S.K. told the college that he first began feeling drowsy and sleepy before developing ringing in his ears, blurred vision, speech impairment and a yellowed complexion. He reported all of those symptoms to Oh.
“S.K. testified that [Oh] would inform him that his thyroid was growing and that the adverse symptoms were due to issues with his kidney function. He was told to eat more yogurt and protein, reduce his intake of carbohydrates and drink more water,” the discipline decision says.
By June, S.K. was so sick that his family took him to the emergency room at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, where he would spend close to two weeks recovering.
A doctor who treated him at the hospital testified that all of S.K.’s major organs had suffered damage, and he was showing signs of significant cognitive decline. The doctor said S.K. would have died if he hadn’t started his thyroid medication again.
The college called Oh’s actions “unconscionable, dangerous and negligent,” noting that he also falsified his records to indicate S.K. was getting better and that he had recommended blood tests when neither was true.
On top of his 12-month suspension, Oh was ordered to pay $29,818.45 in costs to the college.
Cedric Cheung, president of the Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association of Canada, described Oh’s actions as deeply irresponsible.
“A practitioner can never make that kind of statement,” Cheung said of the promise to regrow S.K.’s thyroid.
“Every practitioner can only do his best and try to help, but to stop the medication for the thyroid problem, it is a big mistake.”
College registrar Ann Zeng declined to comment, but said the college takes all complaints very seriously.
Oh could not be reached for comment. According to the college, he has closed his clinic, moved to Korea and did not participate in his discipline hearing. The phone number listed online for his Toronto practice has been reassigned to someone else.