Doctors are calling for a government clampdown on hyperbaric oxygen clinics that are making claims they can treat autism, aging and AIDS.
Physicians in the public system say private clinics are advertising expensive services for dozens of medical conditions, even though there's little or no scientific evidence to back them up.
The doctors also warn that using privately run chambers, which are governed by few safety regulations, could be dangerous.
"We have people, in my view, practising medicine without a licence," said Dr. David Harrison, medical director of British Columbia's only public hyperbaric oxygen clinic.
"You could go out tomorrow and buy a hyperbaric chamber and put it in your garage and offer to diagnose and treat patients with hyperbaric oxygen and do exactly the same thing that I do, and charge them for it - and nobody would come after you."
The little-known specialty of hyperbaric medicine, which delivers 100-per-cent oxygen to patients in a pressurized chamber, produces convincing results in treating patients for about a dozen conditions. Those include chronic wounds and carbon-monoxide poisoning.
But private clinics across the country continue to tout far more claims than Health Canada says the technology has been proven to deliver.
One operator, for instance, insists he can knock AIDS into submission for as little as $4,000.
Harrison, meanwhile, wants the government to ensure chambers are inspected regularly, practitioners are trained to respond to emergencies and that patients are told about hyperbaric oxygen's risks and limitations.
"The off-label use of hyperbaric oxygen by private chambers is a real issue because we feel that it not only has a potential to harm patients, but it has the potential to damage the credibility of the specialty," Harrison said.
"There's a real suspicion that's in the medical community about whether or not hyperbaric oxygen really does something or whether we are just snake-oil vendors."
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia has joined his fight. In response, the province set up a task force last fall and is currently examining an issue that could affect people across the country.
Health Canada follows the recommendations of the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society in recognizing it as an effective treatment for 13 medical conditions, including flesh-eating disease, diabetic foot ulcers and chronic, non-healing wounds.
In B.C., like other provinces, public health care only pays for the treatment of these recognized ailments. At this stage, anything else should be considered experimental, even if it has shown positive results, Harrison said.
He added that rare side effects of the therapy include seizures, collapsed lungs and heart attacks.
Hyperbaric medicine is very safe as long as precautions are taken, he said. But a lack of safety regulations or an adequately trained team of technicians can increase the chances of fire. Last year, a fire erupted in a private hyperbaric chamber in Florida, killing a woman and her grandson, who was being treated for cerebral palsy, an off-label condition.
B.C. isn't the only province where hyperbaric doctors in the public system are expressing concern over private chambers.
A Toronto General Hospital physician who has been practising hyperbaric medicine for close to 30 years said people should refrain from spending big money to treat autism in the oxygen chambers.
"It doesn't work and to me it's unconscionable that anyone would exploit these desperate parents," said Dr. Ted Sosiak.
"There are specific indications that have scientific evidence to support the usage and that's what people should stick with or they're wasting their money and their time."
But the director of a private hyperbaric clinic in B.C., which has treated more than 5,000 people over the last 13 years, indicated he's seen amazing results for off-label conditions.
"You can keep an AIDS patient alive for virtually ever using hyperbarics," said Humphrey Killam, director of Victoria's HOC Hyperbaric Care Center.
He said that after 40 sessions in the chamber, AIDS was rendered undetectable in two of his patients.
Killam called it an impressive accomplishment against a disease that he insists is man-made. "You've got to fight something that's genetically engineered to do you in," said Killam, who charges $100 per 90-minute session, with most patients taking 40 to 50 treatments.
Killam doesn't have a medical doctor on staff, but the clinic does have experts in traditional Chinese medicine on site. A naturopath is only a few minutes away in case of emergency, he added.
Health Canada warns patients to be skeptical of "anyone who advertises or offers hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat conditions such as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, cancer, AIDS, stroke or migraine headaches" due to lack of scientific evidence.
Health Canada licenses manufacturers who wish to sell hyperbaric oxygen chambers in Canada, but does not keep track of them.
The Canadian Press