To say Shea Baird and her husband, Stephen Barlow, were shocked at the investigator’s announcement would be an understatement.
Rather, the couple was in abject disbelief as the man sent by the Medical Board of California to investigate their Santa Rosa–based colonic hydrotherapy practice said they were in violation of practicing medicine without a license and would have to shut down immediately.
On March 22, Baird was given a choice: either sign an affidavit agreeing to cease and desist the practice of colon hydrotherapy immediately or face a potential $10,000 fine or jail time. This was the first time in her 12 years in practice Baird had been visited by an investigator, and she signed the affidavit. “Every attorney we’ve talked to says, ‘They’re trying to set you up as first in a line of dominoes,'” Baird says.
As of now, she and Barlow’s Santa Rosa practice, Every Body Cleansing Studio, can take appointments only for massage or infrared sauna treatments. Baird says colonics made up about 95 percent of the business, and now they’re struggling to get by.
The episode began in January, when Baird got a certified letter from the Medical Board, which had received a complaint from a client claiming to have suffered a ruptured bowel. Baird says this is impossible with her type of treatment. She also discovered the complaint was from the same man who had filed a lawsuit two years prior—a lawsuit that had been settled out of court after an 18-month trial.
Under the terms of that agreement, Every Body was found “harmless.” An insurance company handled the settlement and, says Baird, “we all walked away” after the lawsuit was finished in October last year.
The affidavit Baird signed in March states that she is “not licensed in California as a physician of a naturopathic doctor,” and that “only a physician’s and surgeon’s certificate authorizes the holder to use drugs or devices in or upon human beings and to sever or penetrate the tissues of human beings.” That means inserting no speculum or tubes, as Baird puts it, “in the booty.”
Key to the dispute is SB 577, which lays out what can and cannot be considered medical treatment under the law. A clause in the bill deals specifically with insertion; it allows a colonics patient to be treated if the patient himself inserts the speculum and tube. If the practitioner inserts those objects, that practitioner needs to be licensed.
But in 2002, that clause was struck down in a ruling by the California attorney general. In addition, a consent form, which is typically required from new colonics clients, does not sufficiently protect against the risks of practicing medicine without a license, the ruling stated.
Baird and Barlow were notified two days prior that an inspector would be coming. He was friendly at first, but his demeanor changed when he produced the affidavit. “It was apparent that this was the plan even before he walked through the door,” says Barlow.
The couple was left wondering why their business was targeted. “I could name 20 people from here to San Francisco who are still practicing,” says Baird. None of them, Baird says, adhere to the laws Every Body is accused of violating.
Every Body’s questions to the Medical Board have as of yet gone unanswered.
“The Medical Board would not be able to comment on any investigation, as investigations are confidential,” writes Medical Board chief of legislation Jennifer Simoes in an email, denying a request for a telephone interview.
Via email, Simoes restated the attorney general’s 2002 ruling about colonic hydrotherapy: “The opinion says that colonic hydrotherapy constitutes ‘treatment’ for the purposes of the medical practice act and must be performed by a licensed physician or under the direction of a licensed physician. If an individual is performing colonic hydrotherapy and is not a licensed physician or under the direction of a licensed physician, this would constitute practicing medicine without a license, and may result in criminal action.”
If it were still online, Every Body’s website would show about two dozen testimonials from medical professionals across the spectrum praising Baird and Barlow’s practice. Justin Hoffman, a certified naturopathic medical doctor at Truhealth medical clinic in Santa Rosa, said he isn’t surprised to see an investigation take place. “I know it happens all the time,” he says. “The Medical Board in California generally operates under the assumption that if somebody is practicing medicine without a license they investigate it.”
He declined to comment on Every Body’s pending case, though he referred to Baird and Barlow as “dear friends.” When asked if they have a good reputation in the profession, he replied, “I would definitely say that yes.”
Every Body’s office is tidy, the hydrotherapy machine well maintained and the proprietors are courteous and professional, according to several reviews and client testimonials on the now-offline website.
Reputation does not count in legal opinion, however. In the state attorney general’s 2002 ruling overriding SB 577’s clause, colonic hydrotherapy was defined as medical practice. It reads: “The condition of the walls of the large intestine are changed by undergoing the procedure. The purpose of colon hydrotherapy is, at a minimum, to change the client’s physical condition so that the client will be healthier than before the procedure is performed.”
The decision goes on to suggest that even by determining if colonic hydrotherapy would be beneficial to a given person, practitioners are thereby diagnosing a client, which is considered practicing medicine.
Simoes reiterated the board’s position: “The Medical Board rigorously enforces all laws in the Medical Practice Act and other laws pertaining to physicians and surgeons.”
Baird says that this could cause reverberations not only among other colonic hydrotherapy practitioners, but throughout the alternative medical field to practices like acupuncture or massage.
“The fact that [the investigator] included section 3640 of the business and professions code [regarding practices other than just colonic hydrotherapy] in his supporting documentation is what has caused many different attorneys to have the opinion that they are setting us up to set a new precedent not only for colon therapy but for other alternative health practices,” says Baird.
“They’re not trying to get rid of colonic hydrotherapy as a practice, they’re just trying to own it.”