SANTA FE, N.M. — A year ago, the New Mexico Medical Board deemed there was enough evidence to accuse a Santa Fe physician of gross negligence for allegedly treating a child for medical conditions that didn’t exist.
But the case against Dr. Kenneth Stoller, nationally renowned for his alternative medicine practice and founder of a hyperbaric oxygen therapy center in Santa Fe, started to unravel.
A medical board hearing officer, in a report released last week, called that accusation “a muddled mess” that wasn’t supported by the evidence.
Hearing officer Jennifer G. Anderson did chide Stoller for his “rash and unprofessional lack of cooperation” with a medical child abuse investigation that targeted the mother of that same young patient. In that respect, Stoller violated the state Medical Practice Act, the hearing officer report stated.
But last week, the Medical Board voted to take no disciplinary action against Stoller short of sending him an “advisory letter.”
The complaint against Stoller was filed by Dr. Leslie Strickler, head of the UNMH Child Abuse Response Team, who investigated the abuse allegations involving a young girl Stoller treated between 2009 and 2012, the hearing officer’s report stated.
“This matter is one that appears to have been spawned by a negative and unnecessarily hostile interaction between two physicians,” wrote Anderson, an Albuquerque lawyer who also serves on the Medical Board.
The two physicians “have an oddly adversarial relationship that not only contributed to the development of the circumstances leading up to the licensure action but that also colors their testimony and affects their credibility to a varying degree,” Anderson wrote.
Stoller’s attorney, Kate Ferlic of Santa Fe, said she believes the disciplinary case should never have been filed.
“He’s a professional, a very caring doctor,” she said.
Strickler didn’t respond to requests for comment on Friday, but a UNMH spokesman defended “good faith reports” to the medical board.
“The UNM Health Sciences Center stands behind Dr. Strickler and her important work for the children of New Mexico,” spokesman John Arnold said in an email.
The medical board, aided by a prosecutor who has since left the agency, originally accused Stoller of five violations of the medical practice act, including making false statements about his credentials. The board prosecutor withdrew that allegation in April, and Stoller requested a hearing in late May to dispute the remaining charges.
According to Anderson’s findings:
Stoller treated the “medically fragile” child for developmental delays and colitis. She showed signs of improvement under his care.
One of the treatments he prescribed was hyperbaric oxygen, but the board’s prosecutor conceded that the effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen therapy wasn’t at issue in the case.
The question of whether Stoller provided the child unnecessary medical treatment was the “cornerstone” of the prosecutor’s case, but the prosecutor relied on a single witness to prove the allegation – Strickler from UNMH.
But even Strickler denied under oath that Stoller had unnecessarily treated the patient.
Strickler mainly criticized Stoller for allegedly failing to de-escalate the mother’s pursuit of medical care for the child.
But the evidence showed that Stoller counseled the mother to “enlarge (her daughter’s) severely medically restricted diet,” Anderson wrote. And Stoller declined to treat the girl with additional hyperbaric oxygen treatments despite the mother’s request.
Strickler, acting on a referral by another medical provider who was concerned the child was being medically abused by her mother, sought records from all the girl’s treating physicians. Only Stoller failed to respond to the request. Stoller testified that he did so because the patient’s mother asked him to.
Stoller also testified that he was so opposed to the notion that the mother “was neglecting or abusing her child that he ‘would have burned (his) medical license before (he) would have said (the mother) was abusing her child,’ ” the report stated.
Anderson wrote that Stoller’s refusal “was improperly motivated and constituted a threat to (the girl’s) well-being.”
Stoller allowed his disdain for Strickler “to rule the day when he started manufacturing excuses for his unwillingness to cooperate in an investigative process that was designed to protect … his patient.”
Strickler ultimately determined the girl was a victim of medical abuse and testified against the girl’s parents in related hearings.
Stoller testified in support of the mother in those hearings. The mother, according to the board complaint, was subsequently found to have abused or neglected her daughter by fabricating medical conditions allegedly afflicting the child.
The board’s advisory letter to Stoller states: “Perhaps more so than in any other situation, where there is a suspicion of child abuse, the board’s licensees should be prepared to set aside any differences between them and work together to share information in an effort to aid in a determination regarding the safety and well-being of the suspected victim.”