The Florida medical board has taken decisive action against a doctor who convinced a young woman to forgo chemotherapy for stage 3 Hodgkin lymphoma by concluding her symptoms were likely due to allergies and other non-cancer related causes. Stephanie Sofronsky died under the care of Kenneth Woliner who ran Holistic Family Medicine in Boca Raton.
The story is a very sad one where a confused and scared woman, faced with difficult and conflicting medical information, trusted an M.D. who was not trained in oncology. A judge ruled that Woliner have his license revoked and pay a $16,000 fine and legal fees for medical malpractice.
The decision [PDF] may be a strong message to those who choose “holistic” providers as their primary care physician. Below is what I ascertained directly from the decision.
The Florida Department of Health brought the complaint to the board in April 2015. Medical doctors and the mother of Sofronsky testified as witnesses. Woliner’s testimony was described as contradictory. He was cited for not following Florida statutes as well as failing to keep proper records, and exploiting the patient for financial gain, extending her suffering that ultimately led to death.
Sofronsky was diagnosed with peripheral t-cell lymphoma which was later changed to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Five oncologists agreed to a cancer diagnosis. However, the decision describes that she received conflicting information from physicians and was unconvinced of the accuracy. In March 2011, she was recommended to Woliner’s holistic practice from a Whole Foods store employee. Woliner offered her what she wanted to hear, that it was probably not cancer. For the next two years, he minimized or ignored the prior diagnoses, treating her instead for a allergy to “toxic mold” despite there being no evidence that an allergy could cause her serious symptoms such as masses in her abdomen and severe pain and swelling. He also treated her with an iron shot for vitamin deficiency and for a urinary tract infection without testing for those diagnoses. When she died in February 2013, Woliner concluded it was from a reaction to the iron shot or complications from pneumonia and sepsis.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a treatable disease with an ever-improving prognosis. However, the patient’s condition and course of treatment was complicated by what appears to be her rejection of the diagnosis, her lack of medical support, unsound counsel, and failure to establish of a clear course of action. Then, she had a physician, Woliner, who facilitated her denial. She could have rejected treatment by her own decision but she was not fully informed in order to make that decision.
In his defense, it was argued that Woliner played an “adjunctive” role and should not be held to the same standards as a primary care physician. This argument was rejected by the judge, as it should be. People seek out holistic physicians as primary care because they unwisely reject processes of mainstream medicine and believe they should be treated “holistically” – whatever that means to them. Woliner also said that any effort he could have made to convince her to seek cancer treatment would have been futile since she didn’t want to. However, he failed to inform her of the facts he was clearly aware of and her mother testified that they trusted Woliner’s recommendations and would have considered them. He never returned to the cancer findings and thus abdicated his medical responsibilities to this patient.
We can observe a number of disturbing hints in this piece of a rejection of science-based medicine – the Whole Foods employee, the “toxic” scare mongering, the “holistic” and natural fallacy and the overemphasis on vitamins.
The medical system and her community as a whole failed the victim by allowing her to continue to deny facts and ignore reality in exchange for a fantasy promoted by Woliner that ultimately resulted in death. If his license revokation stands in appeal, it will be one more quack off the street for good. I am sad that the Texas board doesn’t have the same back bone and clarity of reason exhibited by this Florida judge.
Thanks to Greg Martinez for the story tip.