A Montreal osteopathic school and several of its students and teachers are facing dozens of charges and more than $370,000 in fines for allegedly practicing medicine illegally.
Osteopathy is a "manual form of healing" emphasizing the relationship between the structure and function of the body, according to the Canadian Academy of Osteopathy. Osteopaths are not currently regulated in Quebec, but the province is preparing to make them recognized health professionals.
The charges were laid after undercover investigators with the Collège des médecins du Québec posed as patients seeking treatment at a clinic operated by the Collège d'études ostéopathiques (CEO).
Philippe Druelle, president of the CEO, said the school's students and teachers do not give injections or prescribe pills and that there is no basis for the charges.
"We are absolutely clean," he said in an interview.
According to an injunction request filed at the Montreal courthouse, the physicians' college heard about the outpatient clinic on Sept. 12 on local radio commercials. The next day, the college sent a female undercover investigator to the CEO, who was charged $45 for a consultation.
During the session, she was seen by a supervisor and two students. She claimed that her right knee ached, that she had digestive problems, belly pains, premenopausal hot flashes and restless-leg syndrome.
The court document said a fifth-year student, Myriam Leclerc, did an examination of the investigator's head, neck, belly, legs and back.
Afterward, she was told that the bone at the base of her spine "was slowed by the mesentery of the right kidney," according to the court filing. She was also told that her knee problem was caused by a misalignment and inflammation caused by the kidney's control over her body's pH levels. They applied various pressures and manoeuvres on her and recommended some exercise movements.
In a follow-up appointment, there were more examinations and a supervisor suggested that the investigator should stop using an intrauterine contraceptive device and should get a hormone treatment.
Based on those two undercover visits, the physicians' college went before a justice of peace who, on Jan. 4, authorized 33 charges under the Quebec professional code.
For example, Ms. Leclerc was charged with six counts under the Quebec professional code, for which the college is seeking $82,500 in fines.
The physicians' college is seeking a total of $372,759 in fines from the CEO, two of its supervisors and three students.
The sums go beyond the mandated minimum fines in order "to protect the public and have a deterrent effect on individuals and the community," the college said in the statement of offences it filed in court.
The physicians' college alleges in its court filing that, despite the charges, the CEO was still operating its outpatient clinic, taking appointments from investigators calling under bogus names between Jan. 16 and Jan. 23.
On Jan. 21, another female undercover investigator visited the clinic, claiming to have a lower-back problem and asking about a treatment method that involved inserting fingers into the anus and the labia.
She was attended by a student named Joshua Brown who told her that the digital insertions wouldn't be needed. Instead, Mr. Brown pressed and tugged on her body. He said her back ailment was linked to gynecological problems. He suggested an exercise and told her to massage her C-section scar.
Marc Gauthier, president of Ostéopathie Québec, a professional association, said the incident represents an attack that will undermine the reputation of osteopathy at a time when Quebec is moving closer to making it a fully regulated health profession.
"We were fairly shocked and surprised by the steps taken," he said. "This will also have an effect on the image of osteopathy in Quebec."
Tim Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, said the case raises questions about how alternative health practitioners are being regulated and monitored. For instance, there have been numerous examples in recent years of naturopaths and homeopaths appearing to break the rules of their professional colleges by providing services outside their scope of practice, such as offering patients advice on vaccines. But it seems as though potential problems in these professions aren't always investigated, he said.
"It's ad hoc," Prof. Caulfield said. "It's not clear when action is going to be taken by regulators."
Regulating alternative health professions can help ensure members follow professional standards and rules. But this can also risk legitimizing practices that are not based in science or backed by evidence, which can expose the public to unproven treatments and therapies, Prof. Caulfield said.
"It is becoming more and more confused. The public has now all of these different practitioners using varying levels of evidence to make decisions about treatments and therapies," he said. "I think that perhaps the public believes that these practitioners are being monitored more than they are."