Mexico’s Controversial Clinics

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No one is exactly sure when Americans began going to alternative medicine clinics south of the border. As early as 1963, the Hoxsey Clinic had opened in Tijuana with its motto “run by Americans, for Americans.” And then in 1980, a dying and seemingly desperate Steve McQueen rode off into the sunset in Mexico while seeking laetrile treatments to cure his lung cancer. There may have been hundreds of alternative health clinics at that time. Today, there are only a few dozen.

Nevertheless, these clinics are once  again embroiled in controversy with the death of Coretta Scott King at the Hospital Santa Monica, an alternative treatment facility in Baja, Mexico. Why would someone with access to the world’s best health care move across the continent and then outside of U.S. territory for medical attention? On Friday, Mexican authorities, after inspecting the facility after the death of Mrs. King from complications of ovarian cancer, shut down the Hospital Santa Monica, citing a number of what they described as unauthorized procedures. No exact count of American patients in Mexican clinics exists, but the website Quackwatch.org which tries to police the medical industry for unethical and illegal conduct, estimates that as many as 10,000 patients check into these centers every year.

Lori Ferguson wishes her father hadn’t been one of them. George Ott, 63, of Brookfield, Connecticut was used to being in good shape. He ate properly and went to the gym regularly. Then came a diagnosis of kidney cancer in August, 2005.  Ott chose to go to the Hospital Santa Monica in Rosarito, Mexico because the options given to him by American doctors had the potential of causing taxing side effects. Ferguson says her father soon faced a more dangerous fate starting on the first day of his hospital stay. “They inserted a catheter,” she says, “and his health deteriorated almost immediately.”

After 10 days Ott’s wife took him to Scripps Hospital in Chula Vista, California. “The doctors told us if we had waited one more day, he would have been taken home in a body bag.” Ferguson says doctors told her a dirty needle was the cause. “My father will never be the same. The infection has caused him to have infections which led to double pneumonia, bone infection and congestive heart failure.” Having spent almost all of his life savings, George Ott had to live with his daughter until he went into the hospital for open heart surgery. Ironically, her father’s cancer is now in spontaneous remission. (Dr. Kurt Donsbach, the founder of Hospital Santa Monica, declined requests for an interview.) Lori Ferguson says Donsbach has not returned any of the $12,000 he was paid by the family, saying that customers had to sign a release saying they won’t talk to the media about their story nor seek legal action. The Otts and their daughter have refused. “My dad went there because of the promises made by Dr. Donsbach,” says Ferguson. “He said he could cure my father. He lied and now we’re all paying the price.”

Clinics like the Hospital Santa Monica tout cures for all types of cancers, attracting many U.S. patients diagnosed with what they believe is a death sentence. How can patients be sure the money they’re often asked to pay up front will ensure a cure? No guarantees are given. “It is harder today more than ever for patients to find credible information because none exists,” says medical writer Peter Chowka, who has chronicled cancer treatments in the U.S. and the alternative medical facilities of Mexico. “In 1991 legislation was passed to set up an office within the National Institutes of Health where alternative health care would be evaluated so that Americans could know what worked and what didn’t. To this point, I’m not aware that the office has given us those answers.” With costs ranging between $3,000 and $20,000 — depending on a patient’s length of stay — many wonder if Baja’s alternative treatments only cause more pain. (A significant number of these clinics have U.S. citizens on their staff or working behind the scenes. Mexican law forbids non-citizens from owning or operating the facilities.)

 Some of the facilities advertise hospice care rather than cures. (Friends of Mrs. King say she was looking for a quiet place to spend her last days.) One of the most popular of this type is the Oasis of Hope Hospital in Playas de Tijuana. “In a minority of cases, clinical options outside the U.S., particularly in Tijuana have helped people with late stage cancer or a diagnosis of death,” says Chowka. “It has given them a more peaceful way to die through nutrition, pain relief and other palliative treatments.” He notes that there are instances of amazing medical rebounds. “I have tracked cases in which the patients insisted they were cured. I am talking about cases that had the appropriate documentation and were credible. Clearly such remarkable recoveries, especially from cancer are in the significant minority, as they are, too, in the U.S. using conventional treatments.”

The Cancer Control Society, based in Pasadena, California, organizes tours of Baja clinics and defends their efficacy. “There are approximately two dozen alternative medical clinics in the Tijuana area,” says Frank Cousineau, the society’s vice president. “The worst one there is better than the best one in the U.S.  I’ve been to probably 20 or so clinics and the ones that I’ve seen are all safe. I won’t say that we never get complaints over things like money but the overwhelming majority tell us they were treated very, very well.” As for Hospital Santa Monica, he says, “we have taken about 3,500 people — 30% to 40% of those being cancer patients — there as part of our tours and have had no complaints.”

Mexican officials have tried to monitor both licensed and unlicensed clinics in the past without much success. In 2001, Baja regulators tried to shut down at least a dozen clinics. Investigators were hindered by a shortage of investigators and by patients who didn’t know how to properly fill out claims, or simply refused to. Critics say corruption also plays a part. “A few years ago a Mexican official shut down about 20 of these clinics,” says Quackwatch.org chairman Dr. Stephen Barrett. A retired psychiatrist, Barrett has no faith in Baja’s clinics. “After the shut down, the government changed and the clinics re-opened.” Barrett now turns his frustration to the U.S. government. “I no longer just ask why the Mexican government isn’t trying to do something about this problem,” says Barrett. “I can’t to understand why our own government isn’t doing more about it. What more needs to happen to get someone to take action?”