Is This Man A Doctor?

Mosaraf Ali comes to our attention by way of a suit being brought against him by a man who claims Ali's treatments let to the amputation of both his legs. Some background first.

Dr. Ali is a practitioner of integrative medicine, which is to say he combines traditional forms of medical practice with alternative medicine, so supposedly you get a strong, underlying foundation of science based medicine surrounded by the fancier trappings of woo. He "trained as a Doctor" at the University of Delhi before moving on to the Central Institute for Advanced Medical Studies in Moscow. According to Ali,
It was here that his belief in complementary medicine was cemented. The eminent cardiac surgeon Professor Yuri Romashoff was the dean of the faculty and he encouraged his students to study fasting therapy, iridology, tongue diagnosis and yoga along with their conventional courses.

As a result, Dr Ali left Moscow with the strong belief that every person has their own unique healing power. "I thought the time had come to integrate these systems", he says.

He moved to London in 1991 and, after a chance meeting with (and future support of) Prince Charles, he set up his own clinic and started treating the rich and famous, and his reputation spread like bell-bottom jeans, Izod logos, and Pokemon cards. In short, he was nothing less than a fad to the stars.
The Guardian
Ali's status as a doctor to the stars rests on him having helped Prince Charles's wife Camilla to 're-energise' and quit smoking, treating socialite Tara Palmer-Tompkinson for her cocaine habit, and advising former Spice Girl Halliwell on her weight problems.
So, with his glittering reputation and movie stars gushing praise, it it any wonder that Raj Bathija would seek him out? A stroke victim, Raj was confined to a wheel chair, with his mobility limited to only short walks around his home. The famous Ali, he thought, is the best of the best. Who better than him to help Raj walk again?

Long story short, Ali prescribed a diet hight in potassium and massage sessions. Days later, complaining his left leg was turning pale, his feet were cold, and he constantly felt pins & needles in his left foot, Ali reassured him and prescribed a supplement, more massage therapy, and to soak his feet in warm water. Results of this "treatment"? Raj Bathija had both legs amputated.

Of course, there are two sides to this story and only one of them will be the truth. Ali's lawyers have told him not to release his side to the public just yet. Did Raj follow all the directions issued by Ali? Was he irresponsible in not being more adamant about the pain he felt? As a skepTick, it's quite easy for me to say that Ali was pushing woo and testimonials from movie stars are not evidence of efficacy. For them, Ali was the new, popular drug. Still, their words carry weight. Too many people ascribe undeserved authority to people like Prince Charles or the Spice Girls. And the only critical bit of journalism I could find before this case became public is Edzard Ernst's thrashing of Dr. Ali's promotion of iridology.

For several reasons, this example is, I think, particularly telling:

  • Dr Ali has considerable influence, for example, he advises Prince Charles on alternative medicine. His opinion therefore weighs heavily.
  • He seems to have little knowledge about the published evidence in an area that he readily comments on (for example, iridology).
  • He seems to misunderstand what science can and cannot achieve.
  • He seems to believe that his knowledge is more advanced than science (‘… scientific parameters are currently so restricted’) or that, in other words, science will one day catch up with his wisdom.

I find the last aspect especially infuriating: not only are these promoters of nonsense uninformed about their very own subject, they also have the audacity and arrogance to imply superiority of their disproven assumptions over multiple scientific investigations. There you are: I have lost my sense of humour!

Like me, Ernst Edzard also laments the journalistic acceptance (often with much fanfare and, of course, little skepticism) of this type of quackery.

But hey...Doctor Ali is a doctor, right? He has a stethoscope. And people call him "doctor". And he went to doctor training. And he went to an advanced medical institute. Again, from the Guardian:
The Bathija family have raised questions about Ali's credentials as a doctor. He always calls himself 'Doctor' but he is a natural health practitioner, not a conventional medical doctor. The General Medical Council, which licenses doctors in the UK, said he was not registered with it. Ali's medical degree came in 1980 from the Patrice Lumumba Peoples' Friendship University in Moscow. The GMC says 'Doctor' is a courtesy title that can be used by anyone with medical or academic qualifications, which Ali has.
So, he may be a "doctor" (make sure you use the finger quotes), but he's not a licensed doctor...at least not with the General Medical Council. I suppose there must be some manner of certification in the UK. Here in the US, doctors have to be board certified so there is an official organization with official standards of practice and behavior that's giving us some reassurance of competence. I don't know whether the term "doctor" is restricted or not. I've heard of cases where people have been brought up on charges for misrepresenting themselves as a doctor. However, it seems silly that the General Medical Council will minimize "Doctor" as nothing more than a courtesy title. I've taken my share of biology courses. I don't consider myself to be a Doctor.

Alas, that is my failing. Perhaps a new career is on the horizon.


Cleanser said...

That's a tough one. Anybody with a doctoral degree in anything has a RIGHT to call themselves Doctor, because that's what they are. (When my husband got his PhD, he was looking forward to the first time in a restaurant somebody would call out, "Is there a doctor in the house," and he'd be able to jump up and say, "Yes, I'm a doctor in math!" He was joking. I hope.)

But while a math PhD might call themselves Dr. Whoever in academic correspondence or books they publish, they are absolutely not certified to practice medicine. While the titles are the same, there's a world of difference between a PhD and an MD (or DDS or DVM even).

Dr. Ali's case is a little different, because he actually does have some medical background. The problem is not so much his degree, as it is the additional bullshit he has brought along to complement that knowledge. (Many woo practitioners are quite proud of not having a medical degree of any sort, since they are clearly not hidebound by traditional shortsighted medical beliefs. The fact that Ali did not license with the GMC may indicate he sees himself more in the alternative camp than the traditional, despite his grandiose statements about unifying the two.)

Technically, he has the right to be called Doctor since he holds a doctorate. But he shouldn't act like he knows anything about medicine.

The skepTick said...

Good point...I completely over looked the PhD - Dr. connection. One possible reason that Ali didn't become a full-fledged, licensed MD might be that the standards required to maintain his license would restrict his other alternative therapies.

Perhaps a better way to define the question is your way. When someone in the restaurant calls out "Is there a doctor in the house," would it be legitimate for Ali to jump up?

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