'Father of fen-phen' brushes off office raid Timonium doctor will still prescribe drug

October 02, 1997|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Dail Willis contributed to this article.

A Timonium doctor who calls himself "the father of fen-phen" therapy says he will continue to treat patients around the globe, despite a raid of his office by federal agents who claim he prescribed the drug to people he never met.

"Of course I'm going to continue seeing patients. I'm a doctor, that's what I do," said Dr. Pietr Hitzig, who uses the controversial drug combination to treat obesity, alcoholism, Persian Gulf war syndrome and other disorders. "The world sometimes can't appreciate a new idea."

In a lengthy federal affidavit filed yesterday in Baltimore's federal court, drug agents described posing as overweight businessmen to procure fen-phen from Hitzig. The agents said Hitzig -- whom they corresponded with only by e-mail or telephone -- wrote them prescriptions with little or no questioning.

Hitzig, who maintains that it's not necessary to examine patients before prescribing nonaddictive drugs, hasn't been charged with any crime. But investigators seized computers and records from him Tuesday and said in court papers that his practice may violate a federal statute regulating how doctors issue prescriptions.

The law requires that prescriptions be written only "in the usual course of professional treatment" and not for "general dispensing to patients." Hitzig's practice of writing the prescriptions and faxing them by the hundreds to pharmacies around the country is not accepted medical practice as recommended by the Maryland Board of Physician Quality Assurance, the affidavit said.

But prosecutors, faced with Hitzig's vehement defense of his methods, said yesterday that it may be some time before a decision is made about whether to bring charges. Complicating the issue is Hitzig's claim that his practice, while unorthodox, provides quality professional care.

"I never said I examined these patients. I didn't feel that I had to, to provide them the treatment they needed," he said last night. "I'm not the first. I know psychiatrists who prescribe without ever seeing patients or examining them. What's so magical about putting 200 pounds of flesh across the table and staring at it?"

Fen-phen, most commonly used for weight-loss treatment, was banned by the Food and Drug Administration on Sept. 15 after studies linked it to heart-valve damage. The investigation into Hitzig's practice began before the ban, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit portrays Hitzig's practice as a frenzied fen-phen distribution center in which droves of people around the world contacted him after reading about his treatment methods on the Internet. Hitzig claims he has treated about 1,000 patients in the last six months alone, and that his clientele spans five continents.

One of his patients, Brent Clair Donnelly, a man with a gastric disorder, provided investigators with details of his first visit to Hitzig's office:

"Upon arrival, Hitzig did not want to see Donnelly's patient history, nor did he conduct a physical," the affidavit said. "He stayed with Hitzig for the entire [visit] during which time he observed no other patients enter the office."

Hitzig spent hours on the telephone with patients in Texas, New York, Florida, and the Carolinas, Donnelly told investigators, and in every case he prescribed fen-phen "and instructed them on how to self-medicate," the affidavit said.

During that all-day visit, Hitzig swallowed 15 fen-phen tablets, according to the affidavit.

After the work day was over, Hitzig and the patient went to dinner, where Hitzig "began to suffer from sniffles" and asked Donnelly to give him some of the phentermine -- a component of fen-phen -- he had just prescribed, the affidavit said. Hitzig took 10 capsules of it, according to Donnelly's account.

One of the undercover investigators who contacted Hitzig's office by phone on Aug. 28 told the doctor he wanted to lose weight before going on a deep-sea cruise. He also told Hitzig that he had high blood pressure, and was concerned about the effect the fen-phen protocol would have, the affidavit said.

The Physician's Desk Reference, a basic guide for doctors who prescribe drugs, recommends that fenfluramine -- the other major component of fen-phen -- not be prescribed to patients with high blood pressure.

"Dr. Hitzig advised that the protocol would probably reduce his blood pressure," the affidavit said, adding that the doctor faxed the prescription to the Cyber Pharmacy in Blanchard, Okla., after being paid with a $350 money order.

A similar deal was worked out by an undercover officer on April 11, when the agent, posing as a salesman in Texas, sent a $350 money order to Hitzig and received a package of fen-phen by mail from Cape Drug in Annapolis, the affidavit said. The officer had never spoken with Hitzig before receiving the package.

Hitzig said last night he disputed the Physician's Desk Reference claim that fenfluramine should not be prescribed to patients with high blood pressure, saying that a recent study showed the drug could help hypertension.

He added that he was unsure what long-term effect the raid -- and the ensuing publicity -- will have on his worldwide business.

"My entire record system is gone -- five or six computers, everything that had records," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I've only done what I thought was right for my patients."

Hitzig defended his use of fen-phen as effective in helping disorders, such as cocaine and alcohol abuse. Problems associated with the drugs are caused by inexperience or ignorant doctors who prescribe incorrect dosages, he said.

"This is a different idea. It's not the way they do it at Johns Hopkins, but sometimes being normal isn't necessarily being good," he said. "I wish people would look at my results instead of damning me. I'm not a con man."

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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