Iridologist's treatment of cancer criticised by Health and Disability Commissioner

By Grant Jacobs 03/09/2012 36

Today the TVOne website hosts a damning summary of a Health and Disability Commisioner’s report on an iridologist who,

… recognised from the beginning that the lesion “looked cancerous” and that it was beyond her ability to treat, the HDC said.

Despite that, the provider treated the lesion for 18 months.

TVOne goes on to write,

Despite being aware the lesion was likely to be cancerous, the provider did not inform the woman of her opinions about the severity of the woman’s condition or that the lesion was worsening during the course of the treatment, the HDC said.

About two and a half years ago, I wrote about an horrific case of natural health treatment of cancer that was widely publicised within New Zealand. That article includes news coverage of that case and links to background on iridology. I cannot confirm if my earlier article is about the same case—the report uses anonymous names—but they have parallels and shared concerns.

At the time I wrote my earlier article, it was unclear at what point that iridologist recognised the nature of the illness was likely to be cancer. Here the practitioner recognised it from the onset but chose to neither tell the patient nor refer them on — shocking.

The HDC, according to TVOne, noted the practitioner’s overly-close relationship with her patient and has passed on to the director of proceedings if action should be taken on the case.

The patient took surgery for her cancer but died about a year later.

Tragic and shocking as the case is, it is good to see these issues being addressed. I have noted several concerns about these types of treatments:

  • Clients approaching someone offering medical remedies–of any kind–should have some assurance that the practitioner is being held to at least some basic responsibilities and at least some basic level of education in medicine.
  • So-called ‘harmless’ ‘alternative’ treatments can cause harm, even loss of life, through delay of better treatment. (A sentiment shared by other bloggers here.)

(Other suggestions welcome.)

Update: Other media reports have directly identified this as the same case; see comments below for links.


The executive summary of the Health and Disability Commissioner’s report is copied below:

1. In February 2008, Mrs A consulted Iridologist and Natural Health Practitioner Mrs C about a lesion on her head.

2. Over the following 18 months Mrs C provided treatment, which included cleaning the lesion, discussion around oral remedies, and applying topical remedies. No other health practitioner saw the lesion during this time.

3. Over this period, the lesion grew and was frequently infected. By the time Mrs A sought hospital treatment, the lesion was 10 x 11cm and some underlying bones were damaged. Mrs A was diagnosed with cancer and underwent major surgery. Sadly, she died in 2010.

Decision summary
4. Mrs C did not inform Mrs A of her opinions about her condition, and misled Mrs A about her qualifications. Mrs C therefore breached Rights 6(1), 6(1)(a)  and 7(1)  of the Code.

5. Mrs C did not adequately communicate and document that Mrs A’s situation was outside her expertise. She did not document her suggestion that Mrs A seek further advice. Mrs C acted unethically in failing to take appropriate steps when she had reached the limits of her expertise, and in forming an inappropriate relationship with Mrs A. Mrs C therefore breached Right 4(2)  of the Code.

6. Mrs C did not minimise the potential harm to Mrs A, and therefore breached Right 4(4) of the Code.

7. By discouraging Mrs A from obtaining further treatment Mrs C failed to ensure co-operation among providers to ensure quality and continuity of services, and so breached Right 4(5) of the Code.

8. Mrs C will be referred to the Director of Proceedings in accordance with section 45(2)(f) of the Health and Disability Commissioner Act 1994 for the purpose of deciding whether any proceedings should be taken.

Other articles on Code for life:

Message to Otago Daily Times: homeopath is not a sound career option*

Homeopathy – practical remedies to address it? 

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

A course for all degrees: PHIL 105, Critical Thinking 

 Aww, crap.

36 Responses to “Iridologist's treatment of cancer criticised by Health and Disability Commissioner”

  • I’m told that Professor Shaun Holt, author of Complementary Therapies for Cancer,* will be speaking on this on Radio Live at 3:10 pm. (H/T: Peter Griffin, Science Media Centre.)

    * I haven’t read the book, so can’t say either way what it’s like – comments on that welcome, too.

  • Buried within the report is this addendum:

    “The Director of Proceedings decided to issue an HRRT [Human Rights Review Tribunal] proceeding, which is pending.”

  • She should be facing a charge of manslaughter – pure and simple. I just can’t imagine how she can live with herself!

  • Great to have you hear, Shaun. (You can comment freely now that your first comment has been approved.)

    I’d love to hear your opinion on what might be done to avoid these sorts of problems from arising. (I realise that’s a very open-ended question.) This particular case is on the severe end of the scale, but I guess there many more less dramatic cases that involve the same issues. Dr. Swee Tan suggested a registration scheme, for example.

  • One more: if there is a podcast of your Radio Live segment on this, feel to pop a link here for people to listen in. (I see you’ve put others up on YouTube.)

  • [Excuse a polite mini-rant…]

    This article, hosted at, closes with:

    Mrs Nelson acknowledged that Mrs Maine needed to see a doctor, but said her philosophy was to put patients’ wishes first.

    “The mistake I made was not anything to do with the skills or knowledge, it was caring too much,” she told the commission.

    I don’t know about others’ opinions, but to me that’s awful in several ways.

    – “the skills of knowledge” passage looks like trying to defend iridology in what reads to me as an indefensible way. Iridology certainly has its ‘limitations’. (My earlier article touches on this.) Furthermore, currently anyone can call themselves a naturopath (as the stuff article notes), so there are certainly skills and knowledge questions to be asked of naturopaths, including iridologists. The H&D Commissioner’s report touches on aspects of her keeping up her training, etc., too.

    – Her thing of both saying that “her philosophy was to put patients’ wishes first” and offering in her defence that her mistake “caring too much” is excruciatingly bad. If she really cared for her patients she’d refer them on promptly. ‘Tough love’ if you like. “You want me to treat you?” “No, go see a doctor.” That would be to put the patients interests first, not their wishes, which can be ill conceived however well meant. Isn’t caring for patients is to do the right thing by them, not pandering to them?

  • Grant,

    ” Her thing of both saying that “her philosophy was to put patients’ wishes first” and offering in her defence that her mistake “caring too much” is excruciatingly bad. If she really cared for her patients she’d refer them on promptly. ‘Tough love’ if you like. “You want me to treat you?” “No, go see a doctor.””

    I agree with you completely, but then that would be effectively saying to the patient “oh, I’m sorry you have a REAL medical condition I couldn’t possibly help you. If you were just feeling a bit under the weather with something your body could cure itself I would be happy to treat you.”

    I suspect like many “alternative” therapy people the practitioner had good intentions, but this should not excuse such extremely poor and ultimately deadly judgements.

  • The report has the practitioner saying that she recognised it as cancer at the first time the patient came to her, e.g.:

    Initial consultation regarding lesion
    24. Ms B said that, in February 2008, Mrs A showed her the lesion, which she had previously kept hidden under a hat. Ms B had not seen it for months, and noted that it had grown and was infected. Mrs A stated in her complaint that she thought the lesion was “just a cyst” based on what she had been previously advised by her GP.

    25. Ms B said that she made an appointment for her mother to see Ms B’s doctor because Mrs A was embarrassed to go to her own doctor as she had let the lesion get so infected. However, Mrs A decided to go to a pre-existing appointment with Mrs C before seeing the GP.

    26. Mrs A said that she showed Mrs C the lesion on 12 February 2008, by which time it was eight to ten centimetres in diameter. Differing recollections of this consultation have been provided to this Office. Mrs C stated that Ms B was not present at the first consultation about the lesion. Mrs C told HDC:

    “At the first consultation I said [the lesion] was cancer. But then I didn’t use the word cancer (even when [Mrs A] asked) because legally I’m not allowed to diagnose cancer. I said to [Mrs A] ‘you told me it was a cyst … you told me the doctor told you it was a cyst, so that’s what I’m treating it as …’. I didn’t speak of cancer except at the very beginning.”

    27. In response to my provisional opinion, Mrs C said that Mrs A told her that her (Mrs A’s) GP had said there was nothing further that could be done about the lesion.

    28. Mrs C also told HDC that the first time she saw Mrs A’s lesion, she was revolted by it, and told Mrs A it was cancerous, and that she could not believe anyone would leave it in that state. Mrs C described the lesion as “rotten and oozing pus … lots of cyst left growing” and it had “eaten half [her] head”. Mrs C advised that she said: “We’ll give it three months and if it’s not improved, you have to promise me you’ll go to the doctors and the hospital – and she agreed.”

    29. Mrs A reported that Mrs C said she could heal the lesion, and that she would need three months to do so. Mrs A said that Mrs C asked her not to go to her doctor during that time.

    30. Ms B said she was present at the consultation on 12 February. She said that when her mother asked, “Is it cancer?” Mrs C said “absolutely not”, and said, “It’s what your doctor said ─ a cyst.” In response to my provisional opinion, Mrs C denied that Ms B was present at this consultation.

    31. Mrs A spoke of Mrs C as a “convincing lady”, and Ms B believes she and her mother were brain-washed by Mrs C. Ms B said: “We trusted her implicitly as every piece of advice we had got previously had ended in a good result.”

    32. However, Mrs C stated that, despite telling Mrs A that she could not treat the lesion and that she did not want to treat it, Mrs A persisted, and Mrs C gave in. Mrs C maintained that Mrs A had assured her that she had sought conventional treatment, that the lesion had been cut out, although she told HDC this “seemed most implausible to [her]”, and that it would heal itself. Mrs C described her treatment as a “stop-gap measure … until [Mrs A] went to the hospital or died”. Mrs C recalled telling Mrs A that she could possibly grow some new skin around the edges, but would still require plastic surgery.

    33. Mrs C told the media that it was not until a year after the initial consultation that she found out the lesion was 20 years old, and realised then that it must be more than a cyst, at which point Mrs C was concerned that she might be blamed for the situation.

  • Here is my interview on this case on Radio Live on Monday, hopefully I got some sensible points across –

  • I’ve also done a long interview with Sunday Star Times today on this and similar cases, article will be published at the weekend

  • Shaun – I find it interesting that you constantly refer to iridology, simply because Mrs Nelson has been referred to as an iridologist. The lesion was not diagnosed, nor was it ever claimed to be via iridology. It was seen when the client chose to show it to Mrs Nelson during a routine consultation. It should also be noted that this client then lied to Mrs Nelson by claiming that the doctor had seen and previously removed the lesion and told her there was nothing more they could do. So Mrs Maine is in fact the one who started a whole web of deceit that she continued until her death. Mrs Maine had a family, including her husband who stayed with her for the entire 18 months. At any point he could have chosen to take her to a doctor or called 111 – yet he chose not to. He was never a patient of Mrs Nelson’s, therefore can not make the false claim of having been brainwashed by her. There is so much more to this story than meets the eye. The HDC have chosen to ignore many facts presented to them in order to present a very one sided and biased report.

  • Megan,

    Firstly, can I suggest you read the report (and perhaps the earlier comments) – ? If you look back a couple of days you’ll see I’ve excerpted part of the report, the section “Initial consultation regarding lesion”.

    In it the practitioner, Mrs. Nelson, said to the commission:

    “At the first consultation I said [the lesion] was cancer. But then I didn’t use the word cancer (even when [Mrs A] asked) because legally I’m not allowed to diagnose cancer.”

    It follows from this that Mrs. Nelson knew it was (likely to be) cancer from the onset. My understanding is that it would then be Mrs Nelson’s responsibility to refer her patient on. (Not the family.)

  • Grant – I have read the report. I also know there are many facts missing from it. Mrs Nelson did tell her to seek further help from a dr or hospital but she refused. In fact, Mrs Nelson actually told her she should be in Hutt hospital as they have an excellent plastics unit there. Mrs Maine chose to ignore this. My point about the family is this – while everyone heaps blame on the natural health practitioner no one actually thinks about the responsibilities of the family. If my husband or mother was so ill and I knew they needed medical attention I would do everything within my power to get them that attention. If it was a child, the family would be charged with failing to provide the necessities of life, as has happened in other cases. But – Mrs Maine was an adult who made her own choices. I have always been told that choices have consequences and not always good ones. When Mrs Maine made her choice she was sane and rational. Mrs Nelson tried to help someone who refused conventional treatment and when it didn’t turn out the way Mrs Maine wanted the blame game began. Mrs Nelson has had thousands of highly satisfied clients over the years.

  • I also find it amazing how people are so quick to judge. I very much doubt that Shaun has ever met Mrs Nelson or knows the kind of person she actually is, yet he suddenly has the knowledge to comment and provide an expert opinion on a case that other than a report ( which is actually the opinion of 1 person) he has no knowledge at all of the background or what went on. Mrs Nelson tried to get away from Mrs Maine, even took the bus to her holiday destination in order to get away from her, only to get a phone call from Mrs Maine’s daughter the next day to say she had left her mother in a motel down the road and could she please go look after her as she was going on holiday. This was at the other end of the country. Her daughter is also a fully qualified science teacher who stood by and watched all of this happen.

  • While the family and patient bear responsibility, the practitioner carries more imo.

    As a practitioner she should not have continued “treating” the patient when it was clear that:
    1 – the treatment wasn’t working
    2- the treatment was for a disease far beyond the skills of the practitioner, and finally and critically
    3 – the treatment was acting as a positive reinforcement for the patient and their family

    In essence, the misguided and ineffective treatment of the practitioner aided the self-delusion of the patient. As far as the family knew, the treatment being applied was the most effective possible treatment.

    It is highly questionable whether the patient was sane and rational. Any person who presents to a practitioner of woo in the firm belief that a cure is coming is almost by definition not sane and certainly not rational. If that practitioner has urged the patient to take other treatment and the patient does not, then the claim to sanity and rationality is even further diminished.

    The practitioner should have taken much stronger action, not the least in the belief that she should first do no harm… or is that not a part of natural health’s belief system?

  • megan,

    I’ll leave you to your thoughts (although to my reading some of your statements don’t match what I recall being in the report), but a quick thought: what might be more useful than a defence would be an examination of if a practitioner is able to refer patients with serious cases on, regardless of the patient’s “views”; ditto for contacting appropriate medical services for advice, etc.

    From memory—I haven’t time to revisit it, work to do!—there is nothing in the report about the practitioner ringing appropriate medical services for advice, for example.

    About the report – it is more than “just” ‘the opinion of one person’; much of it is derived transcripts where relevant people had a chance to speak – their statements are summarised in the report. (The conclusion may be the work of one person [?], but as noted that is referred on to others and input from an independent medical expert is used.)

    About Shaun’s ability to comment – he can defend himself, of course, but he is a medical researcher and, as I pointed out earlier, he has studied the the ‘complementary’ medicine area – I would think he is in a useful position to comment.

  • The lesion was not diagnosed, nor was it ever claimed to be via iridology. It was seen when the client chose to show it to Mrs Nelson during a routine consultation.

    SO if iris examination reveals no indication that there is a fecking great tumour eating one’s head, I have to wonder, what *is* it good for?

  • yes you do have to wonder don’t you.

    You have a patient you have been seeing for near on 9 years in asupposedly patient-centred, warm, caring, compassionate practise where you are holistically and naturally healing them, but you miss a sodding great hole developing on the patient’s head, no doubt suppurating, smelling, causing discomfort, possibly even changing blood flow in the skull and (presumably) eye…

  • I just read the full report.

    What this “natural healer” did was nothing short of elongated torture. Para 34-40 are harrowing.

    If that is compassion and caring, I’ll definitely go with the alternative.

  • Regarding this concern – “Clients approaching someone offering medical remedies–of any kind–should have some assurance that the practitioner is being held to at least some basic responsibilities and at least some basic level of education in medicine.”

    Everyone claiming to provide any treatment must abide by the Code of Patients rights (see link at the bottom), so there is some protection for those seeking treatment and the case can be heard by the HDC. The case, as well as an apology being required, has been referred to the director of proceedings (a lawyer) under a section of the applicable Act, and there may be more consequences. I’m not sure, the lesion was left a long time before presenting for “care” (scare quotes intended, as far as I can tell she only picked at the lesion without apparently realising the skull bone itself was eroded away). I agree with the person above this was torture, it was simply cruel and the iridologist should have simply said she could not touch it instead of fostering what was a very unhealthy therapeutic relationship. However, to be honest, even if she had any education, quackery is notably lacking in ethics and bashes medical practitioners with regularity. The chances of referring on were essentially nil.

    “The Code extends to any person or organisation providing, or holding themselves out as providing, a health service to the public or to a section of the public – whether that service is paid for or not…The Code therefore covers all registered health professionals, such as doctors, nurses, dentists etc, and in addition brings a level of accountability to all those who might be considered outside the mainstream of medical practice, eg. naturopaths, homeopaths, acupuncturists, and so on…”–code/the-code-of-rights

  • Hemlock,

    Thanks for the informative comment. I guess one aspect about that Code is that, like other businesses’ practices, it relies on those offering the services to learn what is required of them and to act accordingly.

    (Now your first comment has been approved your comments will be accepted without needing approval.)

  • Seriously, is there a reason why this person isn’t having criminal charges laid against them straight away? She appears to be hugely culpable in someone’s death and I’m not quite clear why all this faffing around with the Health and Disability Commissioner is going on. In fact, I think it legitimises the idea that this person was some kind of health professional when clearly they were so far out of their depth it would be funny if it wasn’t completely tragic.

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