Very Soon, Falsely Using the Title ‘Dr’ Will Land You in a New Heap of Doo Doo

If you are worried about the activities of an alternative medicine practitioner, there is not an easy way to find the right authority who might look into it. The Advertising Standards Authority are very effective at investigating complex matters, but can only really rap knuckles and leave traders to carry on pretty much unharmed. Often, the only damage is an ASA ruling placed well down in the Google result list. The ASA can only also look into a narrow range of promotional material; they cannot touch web sites, for instance. Trading Standards have deeper powers and can criminally prosecute, but are not too well geared up to look into false medical claims. They are regional in their authority and have a shed load of complicated legislation to work within. The MHRA are probably quite rightly mostly concerned with the evils of Big Pharma. And the regulatory authorities that provide standards of behaviour and codes of ethics to alternative medicine practitioners are a hollow sham: can you find one example where a self-regulatory body has disciplined one of its members and documented the result?

But, the world of quackery is about to be shaken and I am being nice to them by giving them the ‘heads up’. The infighting about how best to regulate homeopaths may well become moot as legislation being brought in will allow direct consumer redress against many practices that mislead.

The complexity of trading standards legislation is being largely swept away and replaced with generalised laws to clamp down on unfair sales and marketing practices. The act is a incorporation of an EU directive into English law and so will be applicable throughout the EU area.

The regulations will cover a whole raft of,

Misleading practices, like false or deceptive messages, or leaving out important information.

Now, a lot of alternative medicine is full of that. Have a look at David Colquhoun’s blog about Boots and their new wonder drug, CoQ10. Within the act, there will be specific restrictions on certain practices. The ones I am going to be interested in are:

Falsely claiming accreditation
1. Faking credentials
Claiming to be a signatory to a code of conduct when the trader is not.
2. You’re not who you say you are.
Displaying a trust mark, quality mark or equivalent without having obtained the necessary authorisation.
3. Your endorsement is not real
Claiming that a code of conduct has an endorsement from a public or other body which it does not have.
4. Not being true to the terms of the endorsement
Claiming that a trader (including his commercial practices) or a product has been approved, endorsed or authorised by a public or private body when he/it has not or making such a claim without complying with the terms of the approval, endorsement or authorisation.

Specifically, if a alt med trader claims to be governed by a code of conduct and their behaviour does not comply, then they will be guilty. To me it looks like it is immaterial as to whether the governing body actually adjudictates on the traders compliance. That should be interesting, given the widespread practice of alternative medicine governing bodies not enforcing their codes of practice. It does look like it will be illegal for the providers of codes of practice to do so if it misleads the consumer.

Specifically, it will be an offense if,

  • the trader has undertaken to be bound by a code of conduct (or code of practice), and indicates that he is bound by it,
    • the trader fails to comply with a firm and verifiable commitment in that code,


10. Scare tactics

Making a materially inaccurate claim concerning the nature and extent of the risk to the personal security of the consumer or his family if the consumer does not purchase the product.
That is a stock trick of the trade. What would Clarins make of this? Should homeopaths be telling their patients about the evils of medical science anymore? What about anti-vax advice from homeopaths?

20. Pyramid schemes
Establishing, operating or promoting a pyramid promotional scheme where a consumer gives consideration for the opportunity to receive compensation that is derived primarily from the introduction of other consumers into the scheme rather than from the sale or consumption of products.

There goes Reiki, where practitioners typically only make money by ‘tuning’ new recruits.

But most interestingly,

11. Over promise, under deliver
Falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses, dysfunction or malformations.

Now, what is going to be interesting is to what extent words like ‘cure’ are interpreted. The good news is there is going to be a ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ principle here. What are the ‘reasonable expectations of the average consumer’ when they engage with a trader. It does not matter is a weaselly homeopath uses words like ‘treat’ – if it is reasonable that the customer expects to get better after the specific treatment then the homeopath could well find themselves on the wrong end of a guilty verdict.

The courts are going to demand that traders are going to be able to substantiate their claims. And we have a good idea of what they will make of anecdotal and testimonial based evidence.

It also looks like that there will be no need to establish there is an intention to deceive. The trader will be expected to undergo sufficient due diligence about their claims. It will not be sufficient just to wander around with your head in La La Land to escape the law.

Traders will also not be able to give false or misleading information is “the typical consumer takes, or is likely to take, a different decision as a result.” Such information concerns things like:

(a ) the existence or nature of the product
(b) the main characteristics of the product
(n) specification of the product

Will homeopaths be able to get away with saying things like ‘contains small amounts of natural remedies’? Probably not. I am sure the list is endless.

Also, the use of titles and credentials is likely to come under scrutiny. It will be an offense to mislead about the ‘nature, attributes and rights of the trader or his agent’ which include:

(c) qualifications
(d) status
(e) approval
(f) affiliations or connections
(g) ownership of industrial, commercial or intellectual property rights, and
(h) awards and distinctions.

Wow. That could be fun.

The new regulations will come in to force in a few months. As always with new legislation, we will need to see how the act is interpreted and how effectively it is enforced. But it does look like it might be much simpler to complain about certain practices and seek action.

So, if you are running a web site where you imply you are a doctor and you are not, and you claim to part of a regulated profession and you are not, and you offer healing practices that mislead, then you probably need to rethink your business. And you had better be nice to me.

11 Comments on Very Soon, Falsely Using the Title ‘Dr’ Will Land You in a New Heap of Doo Doo

  1. Superb LBD…

    Isn’t Europe a wonderful thing?

    Does the Daily Mail know about this I wonder? How long before they get a campaign going??

  2. Jawohl…

    looking forward to the Continental set-up where styling yourself “Doctor” without a doctorate is a prosecutable offence.

    Thinks ..will any homeopath be able to operate at all? As you have previously convincingly demonstrated, asking homeopaths to regulate their behaviour according to any sort of code is like asking an old computer the square root of minus one.

  3. I like the EU more in theory than in practice, but this piece of pending legislation has a lot going for it.

    On the other hand … I am concerned about the likely legal reliance on EBM as othodoxy when defining heresy. As we have recently seen (ie Kirsch on antidepressants, Kaufman on statins u.s.w.), the available evidence base may in some areas more accurately reflect corporate interests than it does science.

    As you point out, the regulations will cover ‘Misleading practices, like false or deceptive messages, or leaving out important information.’

    If the laws are to be impartially used, they should take on the professional crooks in the pharmaceutical industry as well as the more amateurish fraudsters in the CAM community.

  4. I suspect that one effect will be that people like Ann Walker will be able to trade on their doctorates to gather together practicioners under it. Also I predict that those universities that shamefully offer degrees in woo will now come under intense marketplace pressure to offer PhDs.

    So we might be able to pressure the old guard, but a new more compliant one will arise to take its place. This a medusa we are fighting, not just a few puny cyclops.

  5. Peter, I am not sure that is true. ‘Dr’ is not a protected title, but it might well be an offense to call yourself title if it misleads your customers into thinking you are a medical doctor and are medically trained.

    The ASA have slapped people for this before, and a few cases have been documented on these pages.

    PaulC – yes, this legislation is very clear an straightforward and should make it easier to prosecute all those who deceive from all corners of the health field. My worry is that there may be too many traders out there who have been used to trading in murky half-truths and Trading Standards may become somewhat overloaded. Everyone from the cosmetic companies to pharmaceutical companies, like Boots and their ridiculous claims, to alt med traders of all types.

  6. I think the point about using a PhD or some other degree to call yourself Dr is most interesting. The legislation is clear that it will still be an offense if you say something that misleads even if it is true, i.e. you are omitting to tell the relevant and related fact that the PhD was from an unaccredited college or does not arise from you being a registered doctor of medicine.

  7. The proposed legislation as it relates to a Code of Ethics might be interesting too. We all know about the not inconsiderable number of homeopaths who flout the SoH’s Code – and it will be possible to report them. But where will that leave the SoH in the eyes of the law when they steadfastly refuse to take any action against said homeopaths? Won’t it leave them open to some sort of action?

  8. Peter in Dundee:

    “people like Ann Walker will be able to trade on their doctorates to gather together practicioners under it”

    lets hope the ruling can be extended to permit title claims only for the subject researched. Thus Dr Sarah Brewer, Dr Adam Carey and Dr John Briffa can freely exploit title to push their medical freelance work, but can’t use it to exploit their dodgy grasp on nutrition.

    But will there be exemptions if the individual claims to be not formally trained in the subject?
    Just check Dr Adam Carey’s details on Healthspan Nutriprofile:-

    ‘Dr Adam Carey is an accredited Obstetrician and Gynaecologist with a SUB-SPECIALIST interest in reproductive endocrinology and nutrition’

    ..and of course ‘Professor’ Holfords claims that he only ‘practices’ nutrition…..

  9. Yes, your dark duckness. As a holder of a PhD I am careful how I use it lest it be misinterpreted. I am not Dr in the phone book for eg. But I am when trying to book a restaurant table. I feel I would be within my rights to start a catering business called Dr Peter’s Fried Chook but not Dr Peter’s Therapeutics.

  10. Well this will be more ammunition to take down Obi with.

    Incidentally, did you know that he has conned the President of Gambia into getting one of his fellowships now? Seriously. I’ve just posted it on The Lay Scientist. I hope this legislation covers issuing dodgy qualifications…

  11. So Dr, J could be proscecuted, or anyone who uses the sir title, Dr. Disco, Dr. Funk, Dr. Rock ,Good luck with that, don’t people have more important legilation to take care of.?

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