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Naturopathic Doctors Illegally Calling Themselves 'Physicians'

DENVER (CBS4) - The death of Sean Flanagan in 2003 touched off a storm. Ill with cancer, he received treatment from a man who called himself a naturopathic doctor practicing in Wheat Ridge.

Sean Flanagan
Sean Flanagan (credit: CBS)

Sean's father David Flanagan told CBS4'S Rick Sallinger three years later about his dismay.

David Flanagan
David Flanagan (credit: CBS)

"We've got people like Brian O'Connell who can claim to be a doctor and use the word, put it on his scrubs, wear a stethoscope like he's somebody important," he said.

Although Flanagan died from cancer, Brian O'Connell's actions may have sped up his death.

Brian O'Connell
Brian O'Connell (credit: CBS)

He was sent to prison and legislation was later passed by the state to register naturopathic doctors. In the law one point was made very clear: naturopaths cannot refer to themselves by a key word: "physician."

Dr. Mark Johnson is on the board of the Colorado Medical Society, which frowns on that word appearing on websites of numerous naturopathic doctors in the state.

Mark Johnson
Mark Johnson (credit: CBS)

"A naturopathic doctor cannot say in Colorado they are a physician," said Johnson.

CBS4 examined other sites referring "licensed naturopathic physicians."

The naturopathic doctors are not licensed, but rather are "registered" in Colorado, which provides a lesser level of scrutiny. Another naturopath on a website calls herself a "specialty physician." CBS4 found still another naturopathic doctor practicing who made references on her site to a being a "primary care physician." After CBS4's inquiries, that was changed.

Dr. Roanne Houck is the president of the Colorado Association of Naturopathic Doctors.

Roanne Houck
Dr. Roanne Houck (credit: CBS)

"Our members have been informed that the correct terminology is naturopathic doctor. Not physician," she said told CBS4 investigator Rick Sallinger.

Larry Sarner and Linda Rosa of the Colorado Citizens for Science and Medicine conducted a survey of websites and claim most naturopathic doctors violate the Colorado Medical Practices Act and State Statutes.

Larry Sarner and Linda Rosa
Larry Sarner and Linda Rosa (credit: CBS)

Sarner said, "It would be almost hard not to believe they are medical doctors given their own discussions of it."

Some naturopathic doctors claim they are licensed. They can't be. The state of Colorado says they are simply registered, which carries less scrutiny.

Houck points out their patients sign disclosure forms that make clear they are dealing with an ND, not an MD. She said her organization is trying to get its members to be clear on that. Sallinger showed her the website survey results.

"We see time and again they are calling themselves physicians. Why is that?" Sallinger said.

"Well, many of the doctors have moved here from other states such as Oregon or Washington," she said.

They may be called physicians there, but in Colorado, for naturopaths that's not allowed.

Naturopathic doctors may now also go by "Registered Naturopathic Doctors" in Colorado after new legislation was passed earlier this year.

Those who are registered are those who have graduated from four year colleges that provide a "doctor of naturopathy." Others who call themselves "naturopaths" but have not attended such educational institutions are forbidden from using the words doctor or physician.

Statement From The Colorado Department Of Regulatory Agencies:

The use of the term "physician" and "naturopathic medical doctor" remains a violation of section 12-37.3-110(3) of the Practice Act, unless the practitioner is also licensed as a physician by the Colorado Medical Board.The Department of Regulatory Agencies' Division of Professions and Occupations encourages consumers to file a complaint if wrongdoing is suspected, including concerns regarding improper use of titles. Complaints may be filed by visiting and clicking on "File a Complaint."

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