Monday, September 8, 2008

Charles And Camilla's Quackery Can't Cure You

Mosaraf Ali's list of patients includes Kate Moss, Geri Halliwell and the Duchess of Cornwall. They are enthusiasts of his particular combination of Eastern and more traditional forms of healthcare, which has seen him hailed as a pioneering healer who can help those whom conventional medicine has failed.

But the glittering reputation of Dr Ali, Britain's best-known champion of integrated medicine, is about to receive a stern examination. He is facing a High Court lawsuit from a former patient who claims that treatment at the central London clinic where Ali practises led to him needing to have both legs amputated.

Ali's status as a doctor to the stars rests on him having helped Prince Charles's wife Camilla to 're-energise' and quit smoking, treating socialite Tara Palmer-Tompkinson for her cocaine habit, and advising former Spice Girl Halliwell on her weight problems.

However, Raj Bathija tells a very different story. A textile trader from Mumbai, he flew to London for treatment by Ali in September 2005, hoping that such a high-profile doctor would help him walk again after two strokes had left him in a wheelchair. His mobility was already limited to occasional assisted short walks around his home. But in legal papers filed at the High Court, he claims that Ali and his brother Imran, a masseur at the doctor's Integrated Medical Centre, were negligent in their care of him. Backed by public funding from the Legal Services Commission, Bathija is seeking compensation and to expose what he now sees as the perils of relying on the healing powers of non-traditional approaches to medicine to treat illness.

His action will bring unprecedented scrutiny to bear on the methods and expertise of a man of whom Vogue once gushed: 'What Deepak Chopra is to LA, Dr Ali is to London.'

He is close to Prince Charles, whose interest in non-traditional approaches to healthcare is so strong that he has his own Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health.

Ali claims to achieve astonishing results. He has spoken of helping paralysed people to walk again through 'a special massage designed to improve blood flow to the brain', and of saving the life of a patient with a brain tumour whose conventional doctors had told him to expect to die.

He has some very satisfied clients. Selina Scott, the TV presenter, said: 'If Hippocrates had needed a doctor, he would have sent for this man. Dr Ali is surely the cure for all cares.' He's the 'eighth wonder of the world', according to the former 'It girl' Palmer-Tompkinson. Ali's treatments involve yoga, massage, exercise, dietary advice and relaxation. He eschews drugs and says the body's ability to heal itself is the key.

Bathija, 69, states that Ali's advice during his first consultation on a Monday was to eat potassium-rich foods and have massage from Imran and physiotherapy. However, after the massage he was left in terrible pain. The morning after his first visit to the IMC he says his left leg was pale and cold and that he had pins and needles in his left foot.

He claims that Ali assured him there was nothing to worry about. He recommended Bathija to have further massage, take a supplement and put the foot in hot water.

According to Bathija, his condition worsened dramatically, and soon both legs felt cold and had become discoloured. On the Friday he was taken to St Thomas's Hospital in central London, where doctors diagnosed chronic lack of blood supply to his legs. The damage was so great that later that month Bathija underwent mid-thigh amputations of both legs.

His lawsuit claims that Ali should have realised that the pain and cold in his left leg were signs that something was seriously wrong and referred him to hospital urgently. He is taking legal action because, although the IMC's brochure offered patients a combination of traditional and alternative medical practitioners, he received only alternative treatment at a time when he clearly needed conventional medicine.

'I was promised an integrated medical approach at the IMC, which meant that conventional medicine help and guidance would be available when required. And that was exactly what didn't happen. I did not receive conventional medical assistance when my symptoms presented themselves and this is one of the reasons for my seeking legal recourse,' said Bathija.

Bathija's daughter, Shibani, says: 'Before he attended the IMC my father was in a wheelchair but was making progress with his walking. He hoped he might become a bit more independent, like making the short walk to the bathroom unaided. With the amputations, that's all gone. His goal has been taken from him.' His documents claim that, if he had received conventional medical help far sooner, one or both legs might have been saved.

Although the clinic offers 'integrated medicine', the case comes amid growing controversy about the effectiveness and safety of alternative medicine. Edzard Ernst, Britain's first professor of complementary medicine, believes some forms of complementary and alternative medicine do more harm than good, such as using acupuncture to treat nausea and osteoarthritis. The NHS is referring fewer patients for homeopathy, after serious doubt was cast on its credibility.

Bathija's lawyer, medical negligence specialist Edwina Rawson of Charles Russell solicitors in London, said: 'There's a danger that people will have alternative treatments simply because some celebrities swear by them. The Bathija family were impressed by Dr Ali's clientele and that encouraged them to seek treatment at the centre.'

Last month, Dawn Page, of Oxfordshire, got £800,000 in damages after a 'hydration diet' led to her developing epilepsy and a brain injury. Page had consulted Barbara Nash, a nutritional therapist. The diet involved taking greater amounts of water and less salt. Nash's insurers settled without admitting liability.

The Bathija family have raised questions about Ali's credentials as a doctor. He always calls himself 'Doctor' but he is a natural health practitioner, not a conventional medical doctor. The General Medical Council, which licenses doctors in the UK, said he was not registered with it. Ali's medical degree came in 1980 from the Patrice Lumumba Peoples' Friendship University in Moscow. The GMC says 'Doctor' is a courtesy title that can be used by anyone with medical or academic qualifications, which Ali has.

But Shibani Bathija said that her father opted to seek treatment at the IMC partly because famous people such as the Prince of Wales had endorsed Ali's treatment but also because he was a medical doctor, too. 'The website shows Dr Ali in a white coat and stethoscope, leading us to believe that he was a registered doctor in the UK,' she said.

It is understood that the Alis will vigorously defend themselves. However, lawyers for Imran Ali said they could not comment because of the claim. Capsticks solicitors in London, who are advising Dr Ali, said that their client would, on the firm's advice, make no comment on the case because of the dispute. 'As this matter is the subject of legal proceedings, it would be inappropriate to comment. It's our advice to him to say nothing.' The Observer had given Dr Ali a week to respond to the allegations.


-- Denis Campbell, The Observer's health correspondent, on a case that could break the Indian "alternative medicine" scam wide-open, in The Guardian, U.K..