Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Doctor Who? My Caveat Emptor Organ is Wiggling

A local chiropractor ran a full-page, red-and-yellow attention grabber touting his spine-decompression machine in Monday’s Charlotte Sun newspaper. As part of the pitch, the chiro, Stephen Stokes, claims to have studied with the man who invented both the back-stretcher and a more well-known device, the heart defibrillator. I suggest the local chiropractor might be the victim a fraud. Here’s why.
In a section of the ad titled “Personal Invitation from Dr. Stokes,” the ad claims the device (brand name Vax-d) was invented by the doctor who “invented one of the most vital medical tools used in hospitals around the world today: the heart defibrillator. His name is Allan Dyer M.D.” Stephen Stokes, the local advertiser, reports “I have [...] trained personally with Dr. Dyer for many years.”

I don’t question that Stokes trained with someone named Allan Dyer. But I find no evidence or report that Dyer invented the heart defibrillator, or even contributed to its many improvements over the years.

I started my little research expedition with the Encyclopedia Britannica. It reports the defibrillator was developed in 1965 by Frank Pantridge, an Irishman, cardiologist, and inventor who died in 2004. Closer to home, Paul Maurice Zoll, a Boston cardiologist, “conducted pioneering research that led to the development of the cardiac defibrillator,” among other neat things related to hearts, according to EB.

Now, I hesitate to use Wikipedia as a source for much of anything, but it’s interesting to see Allan Dyer has no entry and isn't mentioned in the section that discusses the defibrillator’s invention or refinements. Here’s a summary of what the industrious Wikipedians assembled.

The entry “Defibrillation,” names several men who contributed to the development of the high-voltage heart zapper. The names begin back in 1899 when two Swiss physiologists applied electrical shocks to dogs’ hearts. Forty six years later, Claude Beck, professor of surgery at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, used the technique during an open-chest surgery on a youngster with a congenital heart defect. External defibrillation was “pioneered” by Russians V. Eskin and A. Klimov in the mid-1950s, according to the entry. Further enhancements came from Bernard Lown, Barouh Berkovits and others, culminating in a portable version credited to Pantridge. The implantable defibrillator was a team effort that included Stephen Heilman, Alois Langer, Morton Mower, Michel Mirowski, and Mir Imran, at Sinai Hosptial in Baltimore with the “help of industrial collaborator, Intex Systems of Pittsburgh,” the entry says. The general credit for inventing the external defibrillator is given to Bernard Lown.

A further Web search turns up a history of defibrillation by Igor R. Efimov of Washington University. Efimov's article (2004) is notable for its comprehensive, documented survey and its generous tone. Although there’s clearly pride in noting Case Western Reserve and Cleveland Clinic Foundation as the “birthplace of clinical defibrillation,” Efimov quickly goes on to report “[...] generations of scientists and clinicians from many countries contributed to the success of shock therapy, which then culminated in the recent worldwide application of implantable defibrillators and external defibrillators, saving hundreds of thousands of lives in all countries around the world.”

No where does Efimov document Allan Dyer’s “invention” of the defibrillator. Of course, a man by this name may hold a patent on a part or variation of one company’s version of a defibrillator -- although my search of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office databases didn't locate his name.

If the local chiro spent money to study with the “inventor” of the defibrillator, I suggest he was defrauded. And if a man claims what isn't his, especially when there's a profit to be made, then I wonder what else he misrepresents. It’s a shame the local practitioner did not vet his ad before publishing it.

Alas, there’s more. Stokes’s ad carries a bright yellow box bearing an endorsement from “Robert Channey, M.D., Former Assistant Surgeon General of the United States.”

In the course of looking stuff up, I called the U.S. Surgeon General’s office in Maryland to ask how "former" this man might be. The nice staff (Rebecca Ayer and Jennifer Koentop, 202-690-7694) conducted a search of their records for me: No doctor or other person with that name has worked there that they can find. "And we went pretty far back into some very old records," Ayer said.

The staff also said me the U.S. Surgeon General’s office doesn’t use the title “assistant surgeon general.” However, the uniform services (Navy, etc.) may use the title if a medically qualified rear admiral or higher elects to use the title. It's sort of a self-selected, honorary thing. And finally, all the searches I conducted for Channey's name and title came back solely to Vax-d Web sites. I found no published article, no PubMed author, no government site, and not even the slimmist Wikipedia vanity entry for this name. I used about a dozen different search engines as well as my state university system's LINCC portal, to accesses scores of proprietary databases. And finally, if this person does exist, I’m not sure it’s ethical for a U.S. Surgeon General (assistant, former, or otherwise) to use his office and title to endorse one particular, privately patented device above others that might do the same job. Is he, if he exists, a paid spokesperson for Vax-d? We deserve to know this, Dr. Stokes.

I can’t pass judgment on the medical effectiveness of the contraption's claims, although one of my favorite health-fraud researchers, Stephen Barrett, M.D. has published this caution about Vax-d.

My conclusion: When it looks like an advertiser has been gulled by his own suppliers into publishing product endorsements by apparently fictional persons, my caveat emptor organ starts wiggling. A practitioner who advertises "pain free in four weeks" and presents himself as a "medical director" owes readers a big dose of accurate information that's not presented in a misleading way. Shame on everyone involved in this ad: the product maker that provided the endorsements, the local chiropractor for not checking things out, the newspaper that put it on the presses, and the endorsers themselves -- assuming they're not fictions.


  1. Very scary. I am jealous of your investigative abilities.

    I have a feeling if i made the same phone calls as just some doctor, rather than a journalist, I wouldn't get very far.

  2. I thought Homer Simpson invented that particular machine. BTW, I like your land rover.

  3. Hi Marilyn,

    Excellent article. I'm going to have to dig into this a little deeper now that you've pried the lid off for us.