UK Chiropractors and osteopaths are not doctors yet many give the impression that they are

I’m sure that many of you will have come across the tragic case of John Lawler who died as a result of chiropractic treatment. The case has received much media attention during the inquest that took place in November 2019. In this post I’d like to focus on one particular point: Mr Lawler thought that he was receiving treatment from a doctor. Chiropractors are not doctors.

The chiropractor in question was Arleen Scholten. According to the article linked above, “The chiropractor, who earned a Doctor of Chiropractic degree at Northwestern College of Chiropractic in Canada, conceded that, under British rules, she should not be styled as ‘Dr’ but as ‘Mrs’.” In the UK, chiropractors and osteopaths are not doctors (unless they also happen to have a medical degree – the vast majority don’t) and should not give the impression that they are. How did Mr Lawler end up thinking that he was being treated by a doctor? Because that’s exactly how she marketed herself! Here is her website from September 2017 which clearly states “Dr. Arleen Scholten welcomes you”. The website was subsequently changed in October 2017 to read “Arleen Scholten D.C. (Doctor of Chiropractic) Welcomes You.” It’s not clear why this change was made but it may have happened in response to the investigation of this case that was undertaken by the General Chiropractic Council during 2017.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case and it is not unusual for UK chiropractors and osteopaths to give the impression either that they are doctors or are equivalent to doctors. In some cases this is done by directly referring to themselves as “Dr” as Arleen Scholten did. In other cases they draw parallels between their own training and that of a medical doctor. See this osteopathy practice website as an example where they say (emphasis mine) “To qualify an osteopath must study for four to five years for an undergraduate degree. This is similar to a medical degree, with more emphasis on anatomy and musculoskeletal medicine”. A detailed comparison will have to wait for a future blog post but suffice it to say that the training that osteopaths and chiropractors receive is in no way comparable to that undertaken by doctors. I also don’t think that most members of the public would realise that a chiropractor who refers to themselves as “Dr” but then qualifies it with “Doctor of Chiropractic” means that they aren’t actually a medical doctor. There are many examples of this such as is done on this large chiropractic clinic website. It is not reasonable to expect members of the public to unpick these sorts of subtle indications and to be fully confident they know the type of practitioner they are seeing. There is a need for much greater clarity and explicit statements to make it clear that chiropractors and osteopaths are not doctors.

In the interest of the health and safety of the general public, I believe that the chiropractic and osteopathy regulators (General Chiropractic Council (GCC) and General Osteopathic Council (GOsC)) need to take steps to put a stop to these misleading claims and to ensure that the public are completely clear that chiropractors and osteopaths are not doctors. I’d suggest the following actions:

  1. Provide clear guidance to all chiropractors and osteopaths that they should not in any way suggest that they are a doctor or that their training is equivalent to that of a doctor. This should cover all advertising materials and also what is said to patients before, during and after appointments.
  2. Apply sanctions to any chiropractor or osteopath who fails to comply with the above guidance.
  3. Undertake a media campaign targeted at the general public to ensure that they understand that chiropractors and osteopaths are not doctors.

If these actions had been undertaken before now then Mr Lawler may have gone to his GP instead of a chiropractor and his tragic death may not have occurred. I only hope that lessons will be learned here and the regulators will take actions to reduce the risk of similar incidents in future.

12 thoughts on “UK Chiropractors and osteopaths are not doctors yet many give the impression that they are

  1. I know of no osteopath who styles themselves Dr – point me to an example? It is common practice amongst chiropractors


    1. Thanks for your comment. As I explained in my post, the issue is not simply around the use of the term “Dr” but also other suggestions that they are somehow equivalent to doctors (they aren’t) or have comparable training (they don’t). You are correct that use of the term “Dr” is more commonly an issue with chiropractors than osteopaths. However, other suggestions of equivalence to doctors are an issue in both professions.


  2. As a layperson it it not rather clear that Chiropractorś aren’t doctors. They may be mostly totally mental, and with view not akin to science, but we do have some personal responsibility here, to know who we are seeing? I mean we don’t get confused when they see a dentist or a vet? Both use the honorary dr title. (Or maybe some people do)


    1. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is that clear to members of the public that chiropractors are not doctors. In the sad case of John Lawler I reference in this post, he thought he was seeing a doctor. The Advertising Standards Authority also consider it be a sufficiently important issue to have provided guidance and ruled against some chiropractors using the term “Dr”:

      When it comes to e.g. dentists this is much less of a problem because they only focus on teeth. If dentists started giving out more general health advice then there is the potential for confusion to arise but I’ve not come across any dentists who do that.


  3. Az an Osteopath of 36yrs I have never and neither do my friends claim to medical Doctors. We arw Osteopaths, why would we wanr to be a Gp, it’s far to limiting.


    1. Thanks for your comment. I do understand that this is not something that is done by all osteopaths (or chiropractors). However, it should not happen at all and unfortunately it does in too many cases in both professions. I’m interested in your comment that being a GP would be far too limiting. Could you expand on that please?


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