Stephen Barrett, M.D.: Interview By Chiropractic Journal Editor

In 1983, the ACA Journal of Chiropractic published a series of interviews with various health professionals. The interview of Dr. Barrett, arranged a few minutes’ notice, was published in the August 1983 issue. The interview was conducted by editor Don Sanford, who was accompanied by Louis Sportelli, D.C., a member of the ACA Board of Governors who later became its chairman.

Dr. Barrett is considered one of chiropractic’s most adamant opponents, While he admits that chiropractic does help some people, he sees most of what chiropractic has to offer as irrational, expensive and deceptive. While appointments for the other interviews in this two-part series were arranged in advance, it was not known until minutes beforehand whether an interview with Dr. Barrett would be granted. Credit should be given to Dr. Barrett for taking the time to do an interview with a chiropractic publication. This was done candidly and openly by Dr. Barrett in spite of any reservations he might have had as to the ACA Journal’s motives.

JOURNAL: Dr. Barrett, you are opposed to chiropractic?

BARRETT: I recognize that chiropractors help some people, but I also don’t approve of what goes on in many chiropractic offices, and perhaps, in most chiropractic offices.

JOURNAL: Why is that?

BARRETT: Well, because I know what is going on in many chiropractic offices, I’ve done a number of studies and I’m very familiar with chiropractic literature.

JOURNAL: Have you ever been to a chiropractor?

BARRETT: No, I have not.

JOURNAL: How can you feel comfortable judging a profession, when you’ve never had that experience?

BARRETT: You mean being a patient?


BARRETT: Have you ever read 1001 Ways to Attract Patients? It’s an interesting book. Let me tell you about it. It tells you that when a patient walks into your office, the receptionist should start talking about how wonderful the doctor is in treating a certain condition. And then, the book says, she should write appointments in an appointment book so as to make it look like it is a very busy clinic. And the doctor, the book says, should start banging the doors in the back of the office to make it sound as if he is real busy. Excerpts from this book have been published with chiropractic in mind.

JOURNAL: So that makes the chiropractic profession bad? Because someone has written a book that is ridiculous?

BARRETT: Do chiropractors believe the book is ridiculous? It’s being widely sold. It’s being widely publicized. I wonder how you could ask the questions you’re asking without knowing yourself what goes on in the chiropractor’s office?

JOURNAL: Have you ever been to a chiropractic college? Tell me, what do you think of the chiropractic educational system?

BARRETT: Well, it depends on the college.

The president of two colleges [Sid Williams, D.C.] has a book he has written, and thousands of chiropractors have paid hundreds of dollars to go to his courses where the teachers had to use this book. The book is a systematic course in how to convince people that there’s something wrong with their spine, and then have them come once a month for life whether they have any symptoms or not. Do you think that’s professional?

JOURNAL: But you’re just giving me isolated instances.

BARRETT: No, they are not just isolated instances. When you have over a thousand isolated instances, they no longer become isolated.

I conducted in-depth interviews with chiropractors representing chiropractic from all over the country. In other words, we had a group of doctors that we interviewed that was pretty much typical of all the doctors all over the country. It was a statistically significant sample. I asked these doctors how often people should have their spines examined. The majority of these doctors said patients should have their spines examined between four and 12 times a year. I think the idea that someone who feels fine should have his spine checked 12 times a year is irrational, expensive and uncalled for. What makes this more significant is that the issue of how often people should have their spines examined has never, to my knowledge, been discussed in chiropractic literature nor has it even been seen as something that ought to be discussed. This is a reflection of the profession.

I wouldn’t go to a chiropractor myself, because I’d probably be recognized. If I were not so well known, I would probably go to one. But I did send a number of people, in one study, to chiropractic offices. They were instructed to answer the chiropractor’s questions as truthfully as possible. The only thing they were instructed not to tell the chiropractors was who sent them. If they had known I had sent them, the chiropractors might have acted differently. There were three patients, all healthy. They visited a total of 16 different chiropractors, and 15 chiropractors recommended treatment for non-existent health problems. Not any two chiropractors found the same thing wrong or recommended the same treatment. One woman went to seven different places and they found seven different things wrong with her. They recommended seven different treatments. But, in reality, she had nothing wrong with her. That’s a statistically significant example.

So you ask have I gone? No, not personally. But I have had people go, when it was legal to do this, and carry concealed tape recorders. So I know what has happened because I have heard every word of it.

JOURNAL: You’re a psychiatrist, right?

BARRETT: That’s correct. I’m also a medical doctor and a medical editor.

JOURNAL: How do you respond to the allegation that you’re just a psychiatrist, and there’s nothing to what you say?

BARRETT: I don’t understand what you mean.

JOURNAL: What right do you have, as a psychiatrist, to review and criticize a profession which deals with a procedure and parts of the anatomy for which you are not trained?

BARRETT: I think most of my criticisms have nothing to do with science. It doesn’t take a scientific background to recognize fraud. It’s fraud to pretend to make an appointment with a non-existent patient.

JOURNAL: What is your purpose? Do you wish to see chiropractic removed from the face of the earth?

BARRETT: I don’t have a goal. I’m simply looking at what’s going on and reviewing it. I don’t just review chiropractic. I was involved in reporting at least 300 law violations to federal agencies. I work to stop misleading advertising.

JOURNAL: In your opinion, do you think the general public is so stupid that chiropractic can go on deceiving it, if it really is the way you say it is?

BARRETT: How can you think it isn’t the way I say it is? Do you want to see the books?

JOURNAL: Do you really believe that people can be fooled that often?

BARRETT: Yes, I do. I saw a very intelligent lady get taken for $10,000 in one month’s time by a chiropractor.

JOURNAL: If this is true, explain to me why all states have come to recognize chiropractic by licensing it and regulating it with laws.

BARRETT: The law has nothing to do with science. If enough people are interested in getting a law passed, and do it cleverly, they can get a lot accomplished.

Other forms of health quackery have been legalized in a number of states. The state legislatures simply say if you can make it and sell it in the state, then it’s legal.

JOURNAL: How would you explain chiropractic’s ability to achieve educational accreditation? How do you explain the Council on Chiropractic Education’s success?

BARRETT: Accreditation has nothing to do with what’s taught. You can get accreditation if you develop the correct form and structure in your school. And that has nothing to do with what you teach. Actually, chiropractic is proof that the accreditation system has a hole in it. The accreditation system worked until chiropractic got accredited. One of the reasons chiropractic couldn’t get accredited prior to 1974 is chiropractors couldn’t agree on what chiropractic is. Eventually, the mixers got powerful enough that the educational offices decided they represented chiropractic, and, as a result, one of the principal objections was overcome. But there are other reasons why chiropractic couldn’t get accredited. It’s rather complicated and the accreditation rules are very peculiar.

JOURNAL: What do you think has happened as a result of your work?

BARRETT: I think that chiropractors feel pressure because of what I have written. I see they are now speaking out against practice builders (see, “Our Credibility Hangs in Balance,” ACAJ, April, 1983, Volume 20, Number 4). I think I’ve embarrassed some chiropractors.

JOURNAL: You feel you’ve helped them?

BARRETT: I don’t know if I’ve helped them or hurt them. I tend to believe chiropractic will go its merry little way with or without me. I think that through my efforts, Palmer College of Chiropractic discontinued its pamphlet series. Those pamphlets were shown on “60 Minutes,” and soon afterwards, they disappeared. Yet, we have sent people to chiropractic waiting rooms and picked up pamphlets that said, “If you’ve ever had kidney disease, the best thing for it is chiropractic treatment.” Have you ever seen that one?

JOURNAL: No, I haven’t. (Barrett proceeds to present a handful of brochures). These are just a couple of pamphlets.

BARRETT: What are you talking about? I have a thousand brochures. I have the largest collection of chiropractic information in the world outside of chiropractic schools.

JOURNAL: Where do you get our journals?

BARRETT: I wouldn’t tell you that,

JOURNAL: Where do you get all of this information?

BARRETT: I collect it. I have a whole, nationwide collection network. I’ve had it since 1969.

JOURNAL: Tell me, how do you explain what I’ve heard from the other doctors here in Allentown, Pennsylvania? I’ve had the chance to talk with a surgeon, an optometrist, a podiatrist, a psychologist, an orthodontist, and a physiatrist. All of these doctors tell me that chiropractic has its place; that it belongs in the health care arena alongside of the other professions How do you respond to that sort of testimony?

BARRETT: (A long pause). I think the first question is, when you say chiropractic works, what are you talking about? What treatment are you referring to? What is it that works?

JOURNAL: Manipulation.

BARRETT: For basic back pain, there’s no question that manipulation of the spine, as well as some other modalities, has some effectiveness. However, chiropractors are claiming to treat 100 other conditions. So, there is no question that chiropractors are helping some people, but there are still many questions that can be raised. What are they claiming to be able to treat? What are they actually treating? Does anybody know? I have more data on that one subject than anyone else who has ever lived. As I said before, I have the largest collection of chiropractic literature in the world outside of chiropractic’s hands. I may even have more information than chiropractic has on itself.

JOURNAL: In that regard, you consider yourself an expert on chiropractic?

BARRETT: No, I’m a collector of information. I can look at certain aspects of what chiropractors are doing and I can see that there is fraud going on. There’s exaggeration going on, there’s overtreatment going on, and there’s no parallel with any of this in any other profession. In chiropractic, the majority of the people are involved.

(Holds up pamphlet). This is not any little pamphlet. This represents a large series of pamphlets that were published by Palmer College of Chiropractic, your fountainhead. I think that the only reason it disappeared is because it got nailed on 60 Minutes. These pamphlets are similar to pamphlets in the majority of offices in the Lehigh Valley. I think it is pretty indicative to have a pamphlet that says if you’re suffering from kidney trouble the logical course is to visit a chiropractor and he’ll examine your spine and he’ll have you feeling better in no time. I think that’s ridiculous.

Even you recognize that’s ridiculous, don’t you? This pamphlet was widely distributed in the United States. And these charts, which are anatomically incorrect, and utter nonsense besides, are used by a substantial number of chiropractors, maybe a majority. Maybe 99% of the chiropractors use charts of this type.

JOURNAL: In your estimation, what can be done? Do you believe there is no hope for chiropractic?

BARRETT: I think, with no doubt, chiropractic will do well. Anytime you have a large group of people pulling in the same direction, whether they are pulling for something useful or not, they’ll still get something done. Is there hope? I don’t think there’s any hope for chiropractic unless it recognizes that Palmer’s basic theory was a delusion. There are some chiropractors who do believe that. And, they have publicly stated their beliefs. I’m not sure chiropractic could survive as an independent profession if it were able to recognize that Palmer’s theory was a delusion. I’m not sure that what chiropractors do is all that different from the treatment physical therapists provide. I’m not sure what they do, actually.

JOURNAL: What do you find so interesting about chiropractic?

BARRETT: I find it very intriguing. My original interests were stimulated by ads of this type, which showed the spine and made all kinds of false claims. I read a book called At Your Own Risk, which was very revealing. I decided, then, to do something about this widespread fraud. Someone suggested that I start a committee. I did, and deciding that there were many health frauds, we started an interdisciplinary committee and began to meet regularly to decide what to take on.

JOURNAL: What were you going after?

BARRETT: You name it, anything; thousands of things.

JOURNAL: How does chiropractic fit in with those subjects?

BARRETT: Well, chiropractic presents a very fascinating mixture of helping people and cheating people. It is not like most of the things that I’ve investigated. Most other groups do mostly cheating and very little helping.

JOURNAL: How are you able to separate your personal feelings to be objective in your reporting?

BARRETT: Which personal feelings?

JOURNAL: Are you objective? Do you keep your feelings separated from what you feel is deception and fraud when you report that deception to your readers?

BARRETT: I still haven’t figured out what I think the place of chiropractic ought to be. What I’ve done, basically, is collect information, organize it and publish it. Most of my efforts have been involved in the collection of information from your publication. I simply look at it, and publish it.

JOURNAL: Describe the American Chiropractic Association.

BARRETT: What do you mean?

JOURNAL: Just tell me your thoughts on it in general.

BARRETT: It’s an organization that promotes the welfare of chiropractors who do everything besides just manual manipulation. It has a very, very clever public relations firm that puts out very slick publications. Its public relations firm talks lots of double-talk and scrupulously tries to avoid getting into what chiropractors are really doing. It puts on a very good front.

JOURNAL: You have an opportunity, through this interview, to say something to the chiropractic profession. What would you like to say?

BARRETT: If they really want to know what is going on within their own profession, they should read some of my writings. They should read my book, The Health Robbers: How to Protect Your Money and Your Life. Chiropractors take each case I make and say that it’s an isolated situation. They say that it’s not representative. The fact is many of these pieces and papers and books are written by chiropractic leaders including school presidents and presidents of national organizations. No, they’re not just isolated instances. There’s a tremendous amount of overclaiming and unnecessary manipulation in chiropractic. I’m not sure that the well-intentioned leaders can keep control. I’m not sure they can even influence it. All I’ve done is collect what is going on, just as I have collected an enormous amount of information on the health food industry, which was published in a book.

JOURNAL: Do you think chiropractors see themselves as crooks?


JOURNAL: But you believe that they are crooks?

BARRETT: No. Crooks are people who use false knowledge to deceive people. I think most chiropractors are well intended and believe in what they’re doing, To be able to say that someone is a crook you have to know what he is thinking. All I can do is look at the behavior. I can’t always be sure of what the person thinks. But I do know that the practice builders teach these chiropractors how to get an enormous amount of money out of their patients. How many of these chiropractors actually go back to their practices and put these schemes to use, I don’t know.

JOURNAL: Let’s talk about advertising again for a minute. It really upsets you, doesn’t it?

BARRETT: I remember one time I filed a charge against a chiropractor who had said in an ad that if you have fearful, constricting chest pains that you should see your chiropractor. Now, if enough people with fearful, constricting chest pains immediately go see a chiropractor, someone is going to die. That particular ad has been endorsed by a state board of chiropractic examiners and by the deans of three chiropractic schools.

JOURNAL: In what way?

BARRETT: They came and testified that there was nothing wrong with the ad. They said it was consistent with what was taught in school. Put that in your pipe and smoke it! I think that the ads where chiropractors get very specific with what they do are very misleading. And, the ads where they are vague are misleading in another way. I think most of the chiropractic messages are misleading because they don’t reflect what really goes on in a chiropractic office. I know what goes on in offices. I’ve sent . . . walking tape recorders to offices. These people that I sent had photographic memories. They repeated the conversation they had with the chiropractor word for word.

Now, there have been a number of reporters that have had no axe to grind whatsoever, who have done the same thing. In one case, a man went to two offices, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. The chiropractor in the morning told him the one leg was shorter, and the chiropractor in the afternoon told him the other leg was shorter. Another chiropractor wanted to put a potato on his chest and use this to diagnose some sort of nutritional ailment.

JOURNAL: Is there anything else you would like to say to the chiropractic profession?

BARRETT: I think chiropractors should take a serious look at what they are doing and take disciplinary measures to expel those people engaging in unethical behavior. The fact is that there’s been some critical comments made about these people, but some of these chiropractors are still members of national organizations. There’s no enforcement. There’s no ethical standard. I think chiropractors should do two things: one, they should read what I have written about them; and two, they should take a serious look at unnecessary spinal adjustment. They should define what it is they do and set up some criteria as to who should get adjusted and how often. Chiropractors should also take a look at their scope of practice. Did you know that the former executive director of the ACA said chiropractic should not have to define its scope? It’s in one of the ACA publications. I think chiropractic should define its scope. I don’t think it can. But I think it should.

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