Medical board steps up investigations of fake doctors

The Medical Board of California reported that its unit that investigates lay people posing as medical professionals, called Operation Safe Medicine, sent 61 cases to prosecutors for review for the fiscal year ending in June, up from 31 cases the year before.

The numbers were released Friday in the Sunset Review Report, a comprehensive review of medical board operations over recent years. The report, which is issued when the board's charter is set to be renewed by lawmakers, calls for more staff to launch a Northern California unit in addition to the existing six-person Southern California Operation Safe Medicine team.

"The Board believes that the OSM Unit is imperative in order to protect the public from the actions of unlicensed practitioners," Jennifer Simoes, the medical board's chief of legislation, said in a statement. "OSM staff has the specialized training and expertise necessary to address the continued proliferation of unlicensed cases."

In one case, an Encinitas woman, Kathleen Ann Helms, represented herself as a doctor of naturopathy at an office called BrightHouse Wellness.

According to the FBI, which probed the case with the medical board staff, Helms diagnosed patients with Lyme disease and prescribed injections of bovine stem cells and dimethyl sulfoxide, a solvent used in some medications.

One patient was sent to a Tijuana hospital to have a catheter line installed in her arm so she could get intravenous treatments, an FBI account of the case said. The patient paid Helms $30,000 for treatments, including an initial seven-hour intravenous session. After a fourth infusion session, the patient grew so ill that she went to an emergency room and was hospitalized for six weeks, the FBI said.

Helms, 57, was arrested Aug. 13 in Encinitas. Her attorney did not return a call for comment.

Charges were filed in December against a San Francisco man accused of performing liposuction while smoking a cigar. Prosecutors say Carlos Guzmangarza, 49, operated with no assistant and had the client hold her own IV bag while he performed the operation.

Guzmangarza assumed the identity of a physician assistant who shared a similar name and ran Derma Clinic, a dermatology office on Mission Street in San Francisco, according to prosecutors.

After an initial round of press coverage spurred additional victims to come forward, prosecutors filed amended charges against him in April. They included practicing medicine without a license, false impersonation, identity theft, rape and grand theft.

Guzmangarza's attorney did not return a call for comment.

Other cases investigated by the unit have focused on vendors selling "big eye" contact lenses in Los Angeles. The lenses are popular in Asia and make the iris of the eye appear larger, but they can also cause eye damage.

Another case involved Cary Silberman, a Santa Clara County man who performed laser treatments to remove toenail fungus at his Shiny Toes clinics in San Francisco and San Ramon. He was sentenced to four years and eight months on charges of practicing medicine without a license.

Other investigations focused on lay people performing childbirth, facelifts and hemorrhoid surgery.

The Operation Safe Medicine team was established in 2000 and operated for three years before it disbanded amid budget constraints, according to the sunset report. It reactivated in 2009 after legislation called for public hearings regarding unlicensed practitioners offering laser and cosmetic procedures, according to the review.

Since then, its investigations have resulted in six felony convictions and 18 misdemeanor convictions. Lawmakers will consider expanding that enforcement team and other issues brought forward in the report during hearings next year.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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