STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some people are questioning pastoral medicine.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
This is a relatively new term. Some alternative health practitioners use it. An association can give you a license for it.
INSKEEP: But it is not a medical degree, and it's drawing questions from watchdog groups as well as from some patients. Here's of Lauren Silverman of member station KERA.
LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Joan Sarchioto and her husband Mark have been searching for a treatment for decades. Mark, who's 60, has crippling neuropathy. One leg is numb. And as he shifts from his walker to the couch, he holds out his left hand.
MARK SARCHIOTO: It feels like somebody is puncturing it with needles, like right now it's cold and I can't keep it warm.
SILVERMAN: In 2013, the couple heard an ad for a breakthrough therapy for neuropathy. They jumped at the chance for a free evaluation and headed to a place called HealthCore Center in Dallas.
JOAN SARCHIOTO: We get in, and the MA, whoever, takes the vitals. And then they go well, we need to go take your x-rays and an there's an evaluation fee of $35. And I said but I thought this was free. Well, the appointment is free and the x-rays are free but to evaluate is $35. When they start ordering tests, I know what's BS and I know what's not.
SILVERMAN: HealthCore Center advertises natural weight loss, thyroid and diabetes programs. On its website, employees tout its doctors of pastoral medicine. That label is what has watchdog groups worried. The Pastoral Medical Association says it promotes, quote, "Bible-based health." The founder of HealthCore Center is coral Karl Jawhari. He is a chiropractor but says he practices functional medicine under his license from the Pastoral Medical His Association. His office walls are lined with certificates, and there's a Bible on his desk.
KARL JAWHARI: We work with a lot of people to reduce their weight, lower their weight and so forth. And we've had great success with it.
SILVERMAN: Jawhari hasn't always had success with state regulators. Last year, he was fined $2,500 by the Texas Chiropractic Board for deceptive advertising. And the Texas Medical Board, which licenses, regulates and disciplines physicians, issued a cease-and-desist order, demanding stop Jawhari stop offering to treat conditions beyond his chiropractic training. He says he's done that. And there may be people who take advantage of the pastoral licensee, he says, but he's not one of them.
JAWHARI: And I've heard of a few people that are practicing and not even doctors, so to it's up the consumer to do due diligence and figure out, you know, is this practitioner - does this doctor know what he's doing?
SILVERMAN: In recent years, the Texas Medical Board has sent a dozen cease-and-desist orders to people using the pastoral medicine certification. Some hawk dubious supplements, promising extreme weight loss, treat hyperthyroidism and discourage vaccine use. Mari Robinson is medical board's president.
MARI ROBINSON: It's really only in the past couple of years we've become aware of the term pastoral medicine and that folks are purporting to treat diagnose illness using whatever they're calling that. It's not a degree. It's not a license.
SILVERMAN: At least not a license recognized by the Texas Medical Board. We reached out to several other people in Texas who have these so-called licenses. None would talk. Many have slick websites featuring patient success stories.
SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Five years ago, I was diagnosed with an underactive thyroid...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And we immediately felt better from it...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And I felt wonderful every day.
ROBINSON: Quite frankly, anyone in the United States who wants to create a website can certainly create a website.
SILVERMAN: Again, Mari Robinson with the Texas Medical Board.
ROBINSON: But you cannot diagnose what is wrong with someone, treat them or offer to treat them without the appropriate licensing and testing and professionalism qualifications.
SILVERMAN: Remember though many do claim to have a license from the Pastoral Medical Association. The Texas-based organization declined to speak with NPR.
It sent a statement explaining it was founded by a group of Christians concerned with the increase in chronic illness. It seeks to protect providers who care for those seeking, quote, "the Almighty's natural health care." Anyone can become a member by passing standards, which the group wouldn't share. Members also have to pay processing and annual fees. So why might someone join?
STEPHEN BARRETT: Well, to some people who have no credentials at all may feel that they'll become more marketable if they get some credentials. There are lots of credentials you can buy, and this is just one of many.
SILVERMAN: Stephen Barrett is a retired psychologist and founder of the consumer protection site quackwatch.org. He says the Pastoral Medical Association functions like a private club. Patient sign confidentiality agreements, pay out-of-pocket and are prohibited from suing if they're unhappy. Any disputes are handled by in ecclesiastical tribunal.
BARRETT: They're just simply claiming that any advice we give you is pastoral in nature. In other words, if I give you health advice, that's not medical advice. That's pastoral device.
SILVERMAN: These practices do have their supporters. Toni McElhaney of Plano, Texas, found out about for HealthCore through a flyer advertising a free thyroid seminar. She'd been taking medication for hyperthyroidism but still felt exhausted. She said she paid $300 for initial testing and for a six-month treatment $4,500 for a six-month treatment plan.
TONI MCELHANEY: It literally came in a big shoebox, and it involved a bunch of supplements.
SILVERMAN: None of her treatment was covered by health insurance. She's convinced the heavy-metal detox, the diet and herbal supplements helped her lose weight and gain energy. So does it matter to her that the woman she sees isn't actually a licensed doctor or nurse?
MCELHANEY: No, it doesn't matter to me. I mean, 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.
SILVERMAN: Sometimes traditional medicine doesn't have all the answers. And navigating what's legit in the world of alternative medicine can be tough. The key, according to the Texas Medical Board, is to really understand the qualifications of the person you're seeing. Just because someone puts doctor in front of their name doesn't mean they're medically qualified. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas.
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