Is your 'doctor' really an M.D.?

Posted April 30

From a teenager posing as a physician to a chiropractor practicing "pastoral medicine," some people sound like doctors, but they're not. A report on NPR this week highlights why it's important to check out the initials that come after your doctor's name.

Licensed doctors who earned medical degrees and completed residencies have one of two designations: M.D. or D.O. An M.D. stands for medical doctor and denotes a traditional, allopathic physician. A D.O. is a doctor trained in osteopathic medicine, which emphasizes prevention and wellness.

Anyone who represents themselves to be a doctor without having earned the designation can face criminal charges, like an Oregon optometrist recently arrested for allegedly putting "M.D." on a sign outside his practice. (An ophthalmologist is an M.D. An optometrist is not.)

But even people who use proper initials can mislead the public, as is happening in Texas. There, a group called the Pastoral Medical Association is granting "pastoral medical degrees," raising the ire of the Texas Medical Board and some patients who feel they were duped.

NPR told the story of Dallas resident Mark Sarchioto, who suffers from neuropathy, a nerve condition that causes chronic pain. Sarchioto sought treatment from HealthCore Center in Richardson, Texas, unaware that his "doctor" was a chiropractor whose credentials in "functional medicine" came from the Pastoral Medical Association, not an accredited medical school.

The chiropractor, Karl Jawhari, told NPR that the center mostly works with people who need help with weight loss, diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol and thyroid issues, and that he has complied with the state medical board's demand that he limit treatment to that of his training.

But even his own governing board has taken issue with Jawhari's work: Last year, the Texas Board of Chiropractic Examiners fined him $2,500 for deceptive advertising, NPR's Lauren Silverman reported.

The Texas Medical Board has sent cease-and-desist orders to about a dozen pastoral-medicine practitioners, its board president, Mari Robinson, told NPR. "Folks are purporting to treat and diagnose illness using that term. It's not a degree; it's not a license," she said.

The PMA calls itself a "private ecclesiastical membership association with a mission to promote scripture based health and wellness concepts." It offers licensing that costs anywhere "from a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars," and the licenses bear an emblem similar to the Rod of Asclepius, the ancient symbol of healing that depicts a snake winding around a pole.

Some people care more about results than credentials, however, NPR notes. Robinson interviewed a Texas woman who paid HealthCore Center $4,800 for six months of treatment for hypothyroidism. The regimen included a "heavy metal detox," herbal supplements and a special diet.

The client, Toni McElhaney, told NPR it doesn't matter if the person helping her is a licensed doctor. "I feel like she knows her stuff, and I have responded better to her treatment than I would have just going to an endocrinologist alone," she said.

Of course, any person can help another with their health issues, so long as they don't claim to be an M.D., like the Florida teen arrested twice after giving medical advice to an undercover officer. In the Sunshine State, that's a third-degree felony, and Malachi Love-Robinson may be going to jail.


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