In 1987 there was a small news story about how the American Medical Association was found guilty of illegally attempting to destroy the chiropractic profession. While it was not a very big topic for the media, for the chiropractic profession it was a huge story, one we all followed intently.
It was the final vindication of something the chiropractic profession had suspected all along: that the AMA had sought to keep control of health care by trying to eliminate its main competitor, chiropractic.
The lawsuit revealed a systematic, nationally organized, “behind the scenes” attack on chiropractic, including a vicious smear campaign labeling doctors of chiropractic as quacks, even “rabid dogs and killers”; efforts to prevent them from inclusion in health insurance plans, especially Medicare; and even to have state legislatures eliminate licensure for the profession. (Maine was one of their “battleground states.” More on that in a later column.)
Medical doctors who accepted referrals from doctors of chiropractic could lose their license, and hospitals that took X-rays for DCs could lose their accreditation.
Obviously they were not effective at eliminating the profession, otherwise I would not be writing this column. But the judge who found the AMA guilty agreed that there was significant damage done, especially to our profession’s reputation. She mentioned the “lingering effects” of the boycott, including the public’s perception of chiropractors as quacks, dangerous cultists and poorly trained professionals. She also stated that while there seemed to be some genuine concern about the safety of chiropractic care, the AMA’s own evidence showed chiropractic care to be safe and effective, and that the AMA’s primary motivation seemed to be economic.
One of the doctors leading the attack wrote, “The field doctors should be told that chiropractors are stealing money from their pockets.”
In sharp contrast to the attacks from the AMA was a landmark report, commissioned by the government of New Zealand, which was coincidentally released part way through the trials, in 1979. This study of the chiropractic profession was ordered as the result of more than 95,000 letters received by the government, requesting that chiropractic care be covered. After interviewing leaders of all the health professions, patients of chiropractors (who were cross-examined by lawyers from the professional associations), visiting several chiropractic colleges, and making surprise visits to chiropractic clinics, their conclusion was drastically different from the AMAs.
Here is a part of their conclusion: “By the end of the query we found ourselves irresistibly and with complete unanimity drawn to the conclusion that modern chiropractic is a soundly-based and valuable branch of health care in a specialized area neglected by the medical profession.”
The authors commented that they began with the usual bias against the chiropractic profession, but by the end of the inquiry, which took two years, they had completely reversed their opinions.
This explains the split in opinions between the general public — who tend to be skeptical — and chiropractic patients, who tend to be very happy with their care.
A survey mailed to several hundred people asked their opinion of the chiropractic profession. The researchers commented: “One particularly glaring aspect was the overwhelmingly negative preconception of a chiropractor’s level of education and training,” meaning the public did not have a good grasp of the training needed to get a doctor of chiropractic degree.
Compare this to patient satisfaction ratings. Doctors of chiropractic consistently shine here; one survey of back pain patients found that 66 percent of the chiropractic patients were “very satisfied” with their care, compared to 22 percent of medical patients.
In a recent Medicare survey, 87 percent of the patients gave their DC a rating of eight or higher out of 10, and 56 percent gave their DC a perfect 10 rating.
A 2009 Consumer Reports article found DCs had the highest satisfaction of any profession for the treatment of low back pain, with 59 percent of patients being highly satisfied, compared to 44 percent for specialist care and 34 percent for family doctors.
Despite the AMA’s labels, doctors of chiropractic are not rabid dogs, killers or quacks. We are highly trained in our field, and are also trained to send patients who need medical care to the appropriate doctor. The next time you hear someone call a DC a quack, remember that label was given by a political group that sought to “contain and eliminate” my profession. That opinion is not shared by the vast majority of our satisfied patients.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at email@example.com.