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Alternative-medicine doctor reprimanded, fined in hepatitis C outbreak

Dr. Carol Roberts, a once-prominent advocate of alternative medicine, was reprimanded and fined $15,000 today by the Florida Board of Medicine at a meeting in Boca Raton. She had been charged with two counts of negligence in a 2009 outbreak of hepatitis C among her patients.

As many as 11 cases of the serious and incurable illness developed after a nurse at Roberts’ Tampa-area clinic reused syringes and medicine vials. The nurse, Brandy Medeiros, is now serving a five-year probation ordered by the Board of Nursing.

Roberts was charged in only two of the cases. The Department of Health said no other patients filed complaints.

Donald Mullins, a consumer member of the board, said he didn’t see it as fair to blame a doctor for what a nurse does. But all other board members disagreed.

Dr. Zach Zachariah said that as “captain of the ship,” Roberts had to take responsibility for what happened. Dr. Fred Bearison agreed: “The doctor does have responsibility to make sure policies and procedures are followed."

Even though Roberts herself did not transmit the disease, she was responsible as owner and medical director of the Wellness Works clinic, the board concluded. Only Mullins voted against accepting the settlement negotiated between DOH and Roberts’ attorney, Gregory Chaires.

“This has been a trying and traumatic experience for this doctor,” Chaires told the board. “Her practice was closed, she lost her radio show…and she had to file for bankruptcy.”

Roberts hosted a Tampa radio show on alternative medicine for years until the outbreak cast public attention on her controversial views. Among them: that patients who have chronic illnesses respond to intravenous treatment with vitamins or a chemical that removes heavy metals from the blood – a practice called “chelation therapy.”

In response to a question, Roberts said she still does chelation therapy at the clinics where she now works, in Naples and Sarasota.

Board member Dr. Onelia Lage told Roberts she was concerned that Roberts -- a Harvard-trained, board-certified otolaryngologist -- was practicing a kind of integrative medicine for which she had no formal training. Roberts said she is "self-taught."

Lage said she is concerned that Roberts may be performing treatments that aren’t “fully evidence-based,” adding, “it’s important that you not put patients at risk.”

--Health News Florida, journalism for a healthy state, is a service of WUSF Public Media. Question? Comment? Contact Editor Carol Gentry at 813-974-8629 or 727-410-3266 , or by e-mail at cgentry@wusf.org.

Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.After serving two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, Gentry worked for a number of newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times), the Tampa Tribune and Orlando Sentinel. She was a Kaiser Foundation Media Fellow in 1994-95 and earned an Master's in Public Administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1996. She directed a journalism fellowship program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for four years.Gentry created Health News Florida, an independent non-profit health journalism publication, in 2006, and served as editor until September, 2014, when she became a special correspondent. She and Health News Florida joined WUSF in 2012.
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