The young man found wandering the halls of a Florida hospital trying to blend in as a doctor is an anomaly. People do occasionally try to impersonate physicians. But it isn’t easy to pull off, and the penalty can be high.

Almost anyone, though, can masquerade as a healer or “health care professional.” In the United States, thousands of unqualified individuals are offering health advice with little training and even less supervision and oversight. As I describe on Quackwatch and Credential Watch, they do this using mail-order credentials such as holistic healer, nutrition consultant, and health coach.

Take Malachi Love-Robinson. He opened his New Birth New Life Medical Center and Urgent Care in West Palm Beach, Fla., claiming to be a naturopathic physician “board certified” by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners and the American Alternative Medical Association. The clinic’s offerings included “air, water, light, heat, earth, phototherapy, food and herb therapy, psychotherapy, electrotherapy, physiotherapy, mechanotherapy, naturopathic corrections and manipulation, and natural methods or modalities.” The PhD degree he listed wasn’t obtained from an accredited school, and the “certifying” bodies he named are not recognized agencies. Most of the treatments he listed have little value. But most important, he was not qualified or licensed to make appropriate medical diagnoses or provide appropriate treatment.

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Getting a certificate to hang on the wall can be child’s play. There are scores of organizations to choose from. For $50, the daughter of a former secretary of mine once got a “professional member” certificate from the American Association of Nutritional Consultants in the name of her pet hamster. It was beautiful, much nicer than my medical school diploma.

Some online organizations and schools are accredited by recognized agencies. Others aren’t. Accredited or not, no correspondence school can prepare an individual to give competent clinical advice. To safely and ethically do that, you need hands-on training in which you actually see patients under expert supervision.

Armed with a certificate and enough money to rent office space, anyone can set up shop to see patients. Such “professionals” can say, and do, basically anything they want. They rarely come to the attention of regulators as long as they don’t harm anyone or incur complaints. This is akin to the situation with dietary supplements. Anyone can create and sell a dietary supplement with no evidence that it works, and most escape the attention of the FDA unless the product causes harm or the seller claims it will cure disease.

The number of people promoting alternative health practices is far greater than the regulatory energy of enforcement agencies. I have filed a number of complaints about false health claims made by people who have no license or legitimate credential. Some have been completely ignored. When investigations were launched, they moved slowly.

I suggest a simple strategy for learning the voice of the quack: stay away from practitioners who recommend bunches of dietary supplements for everyone or who sell supplements — even if they have a medical degree or license. Do that and you will avoid most imposters as well.

Stephen Barrett, MD, writes about dubious health and nutrition practices at Quackwatch, Credential Watch, and 23 other consumer-protection websites he has founded and publishes a free weekly newsletter. He is also a champion master swimmer.

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