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Pastors use hyperbaric chambers as alternative medicine

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

When you or your loved one is really sick, you may be willing to try just about anything. The Channel 4 I-Team went undercover to a church where the pastors say they can use hyperbaric chambers to treat everything from hair loss to depression.

The problem is health experts say these pastors are making potentially misleading promises.

Pastors and twin brothers Dale and Gale Hammond are singers in the gospel group The Hammond Brothers, and they also say they're doctors. Even their business cards say it.

They told us over the phone and in person they're natural medicine doctors, but no one is quite clear what that means.

Those in alternative medicine say "NMD," as those business cards read, typically refer to a naturopathic medical doctor. Yet, the practice of naturopathy is banned in Tennessee.

But it's not the healing herbs they promote that's controversial. It's hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Using hidden cameras, the Channel 4 I-Team spotted several portable hyperbaric chambers in a building the Hammonds call their clinic.

The FDA has only cleared portable chambers for certain medical uses, such as mountain sickness. Typically, doctors use bigger chambers to treat decompression sickness from deep water diving, but the Hammonds' chambers are in a building next to their church.

When we told one of the nation's experts on hyperbaric chambers about what the Hammonds are doing, he had this advice for anyone who is being treated at the clinic: Turn around and walk away.

"Go try to find a legitimate hyperbaric treatment facility," said Tom Workman, director of quality assurance and regulatory affairs for the Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society.

We started investigating what the Hammonds call their clinic after a source requested an investigation by the state and the Channel 4 I-Team.

First, we went into the clinic ourselves, wearing a hidden camera and asking why would anyone in Middle Tennessee go into one of the chambers that's typically used to treat problems like decompression sickness or carbon monoxide poisoning.

Dale Hammond said all of us are deprived of oxygen and their chambers boost your oxygen levels. Plus, the Hammonds added, these chambers can be used to treat all kinds of problems.

When asked how long their patients have to go into the chambers, Gale Hammond said, "It depends on what's going on. Typically, we do 40 treatments."

Sometimes those treatments last up to an hour at a time, and we watched as people went in, wearing what appeared to be oxygen masks.

We took all this to Dr. Richard Moon, the medical director of the Duke University Center for Hyperbaric Medicine.

"There is no evidence that hyperbaric oxygen therapy reverses hair loss, and I can tell you, from having treated thousands of patients who are losing their hair, no one has ever said, 'My gosh, I am delighted that my hair is coming back.' That, I would say, is a false claim," Moon said.

In another visit, Dale Hammond told us the hyperbaric chambers could help treat depression. But an expert we talked to says that's not true, and the FDA says it hasn't been established.

"Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is not a panacea. It is not a golden wand," Workman said. "You will frequently find claims for off-label use that just, as you said, for everything all the way up to hair loss, I can assure you that's certainly not the case."

So, what does all this cost? Dale Hammond said they do take insurance, but only with a doctor's prescription. Then, their attorney told the Channel 4 I-Team the Hammonds sometimes get prescriptions from patients' physicians but not always.

The hyperbaric expert we talked to says a prescription is always required for hyperbaric oxygen therapy. "If they are not requiring a licensed practitioner prescription for the use of the chambers, then they are in violation of federal law," Workman said.

Dale Hammond also said most patients pay by making a donation of a minimum of $100 per visit. And, if you need 40 treatments, that could be a $4,000 donation.

They also claim they will work with people who can't afford to pay for treatment.

We also wanted to know what qualifications they have to administer hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

"I'm a DMO: a diving medical officer. I'm already a DMO. It took me four years to get there," Gale Hammond said.

They say they're certified, but when we contacted the international association that certifies diving medical officers, the organization wrote, "We at the International Board of Undersea Medicine are very concerned that a couple of our members may have misrepresented themselves and their credentials for certificates and membership." That statement goes on to say, "Anyone who shows evidence that they willfully misrepresented their credentials will have their memberships immediately revoked."

The International Board of Undersea Medicine said it does have the Hammonds' younger brother, Johnny Hammond, on record as a chamber operator, but the agency adds he has no medical credentials and the course he took, they say, is an entry level course.

The Hammonds also say on their business cards they're members of the ACHM: the American College of Hyperbaric Medicine. We checked, and the ACHM says Dale and Gale Hammond are not members but have taken some online courses with the group.

We asked the Hammonds to answer our questions on camera, but they denied our requests. On another occasion, a man who appeared to be Dale Hammond headed for the door when our news crew arrived.

The Hammonds' attorney sent us a letter, saying some of the chambers we saw are hard-shell chambers and are not even hooked up or being used. We're told they were donated to the Hammonds' church to sell. Their attorney also tells us there is no indication they have done anything wrong. And, they say, they have not received any complaints that anyone is being harmed in anyway.

The attorney adds the Hammonds have never claimed to be medical doctors. He says they even have their patients sign a waiver that says they are aware the Hammonds are not medical doctors.

It's important to note we checked with the Tennessee Health Department, and they confirm Dale and Gale Hammond are not licensed by any of their health professional boards and were even unapproved applicants for licensure as reflexologists.

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