The Rise and Fall of the People's Medical Society
and Charles Inlander
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
The People's Medical Society (PMS), headquartered in Allentown, Pennsylvania, was launched in 1983 with the announced intention of helping people become better medical consumers . It was a brainchild of the late Robert Rodale, board chairman of Rodale Press and publisher of Prevention magazine. During 1982, he ran a series of editorials criticizing the medical establishment and promising "a grassroots campaign that will turn America's medical system on its head." In 1983, Rodale Press provided start-up funds and hired Charles K. Inlander as executive director. In 1986, Inlander assumed the title of president and Robert Rodale stopped serving as PMS's board chairman.
Over the years, PMS listed the following goals:
- To put previously unavailable information into the hands of ordinary people so that they can make informed decisions about their own health care.
- To publish information designed to make every American a smart health care consumer.
- To investigate and expose incidents of arrogance, incompetence and greed in organized medicine.
- To protect the freedom to choose alternative providers of health care services.
- To make the prevention of disease the top priority of American medicine.
- To work toward creating an American health care system that is affordable, compassionate and centered around the needs of people.
Although some of these goals sounded good, much of its advice was untrustworthy—so much so that Rodale Press terminated its affiliation in the late 1980s. PMS stopped functioning as a membership organization in 2002, but Inlander continued to garner publicity that suggested that the organization was still active .
Promotion of Unscientific Methods
PMS produced many books, booklets, reading lists, and other special reports. Some contain valuable information, but others promote unscientific methods and/or portray them as equivalent to scientific ones. For example:
- Its reading lists, prepared during the 1980s with the Planetree Health Resource Center, included unscientific publications as well as reputable ones. For example, the bibliography on arthritis included a book which claimed that food allergy is a major cause of arthritis; the bibliography on cancer included one boosting macrobiotic diets; and the bibliography on nutrition included several unscientific books.
- Its booklet "Options in Health Care" uncritically promoted the unscientific theories and practices of acupuncture, acupressure, traditional Chinese medicine, chiropractic, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, metabolic therapy, naturopathy, orthomolecular therapy, psychic healing, and reflexology.
- Its 1991 book Getting the Most for Your Health-Care Dollar mentioned these practices without the slightest hint that they are a waste of money.
- Its report, "Deregulating Doctoring," suggested that unorthodox practitioners be allowed to practice with minimal government regulation.
- Its bulletin on cancer-care options included promoters of quack cancer methods in its list of sources of information.
- Its bulletin on choosing doctors included the dubious advice that obtaining a health-related degree through a correspondence course "does not in and of itself imply an inferior education."
- Its special report on high blood pressure contained sound advice but falsely suggested that "alternative" methods had much to offer for this problem.
- Its 1995 book The Consumers Medical Desk Reference stated that many alternative cancer therapies "rather than treating the symptoms of cancer—the tumor . . . attempt to treat the cause, be it faulty physical health or spiritual well-being." This viewpoint is pure rubbish.
- Its 1997 book The Parent's Complete Guide to Ear Infections contains four pages recommending the use of homeopathic products even though the author acknowledges that "alas . . . . no randomized controlled study has ever shown any of them to be more effective than a placebo." The book also supports the use of ear candling, which is neither safe nor effective.
- Its 1997 book Complete Book of Complementary Therapies was filled with unsubstantiated advice.
- Its newsletter, published bimonthly until 2002, occasionally contained useful suggestions, but most of its information was slanted to encourage members to distrust science-based practitioners and regard them as adversaries.
During the 1980s, PMS encouraged its members to write to legislators or other officials. Some campaigns involved antiquackery legislation (opposed by PMS), funds for organic farming (favored), licensing of nutritionists (opposed), and food irradiation (opposed). In recent years I saw no letter-writing campaigns, but the dues renewal notice for 1999 stated:
PMS gives you a bigger stick. PMS goes to bat for its members and all health care consumers when government threatens to cut back on your medical care rights. We've appealed to Congress and congressional committees, to the Department of Health and Human Services, to the Food and Drug Administration, to the Environmental Protection Agency and to many other government bodies to protect your rights and your pocketbook.
Advisory Board Documents
In 1986, one of PMS's advisers became upset with some of Inlander's activities and sent me a set of the reports that the board had received during its first three years. In a letter accompanying the 2-inch-thick packet, the member stated that "the advisory committee is a farce and had never met."
The most interesting documents in the packet were written by Tom Belford, a communications consultant who later became PMS's treasurer. In 1985 memo, he recommended posturing PMS as "independent, feisty, willing and able to arouse a public outcry against the AMA" and what he called "its protection of incompetent, dangerous practitioners." He also recommended portraying the AMA as "a guild determined to protect its own, even in the face of incompetence and patient abuse" and recommended developing legislative proposals "so common-sensical that opposition is tantamount to foisting dangerous practitioners upon the public." There's no question that the AMA is interested in protecting its members in various ways, but I have seen no evidence that it supports incompetence and patient abuse.
The packet also contained a complete set of monthly reports that Inlander had sent to PMS's board of directors. The report I found most interesting was issued in July 1986. Inlander had attended a meeting of the American Trial Lawyers Association (ATLA) at which representatives of over 100 "consumer and victims" groups discussed creating a network organization particularly aimed at "fighting ort reforms that were not in the best interest of consumers and victims rights." Following the meeting, Inlander said, a committee was formed to create a "People's Justice Alliance"—which he had offered to make a PMS project—and that he was elected chairperson. In August 1986 report, Inlander said that PMS had received a $5,000 grant in support of the project from the Civil Justice Trust, "a new foundation established by the American Trial Lawyers Association." In other words, ATLA had spawned an organization whose aims would include opposition to legislative attempts to stop the runaway cost of medical malpractice insurance with Inlander as its leader. A In 1993, a PMS report on the organization's history mentioned that 40 groups had joined the alliance, but I have not seen it mentioned anywhere else.
Thinking that this might be of interest to physicians, I reported this to Medical Economics magazine. During the interview that followed, Inlander learned that the reporter had a copy of the July board report. In the September report, Inlander warned the board to be careful about where they passed copies of his report—and he joked about Medical Economics and the AMA probably reading what he wrote. In October, however, he announced that PMS's board of directors had abolished the advisory board.
Phony Membership Numbers?
Publicity materials described PMS as "the largest consumer health organization in America" and stated that it was run "by the people" and "for the people." However, neither its officers nor its board members were elected, and its activities and policies appeared to be determined solely by Inlander. At various times, PMS publications and press reports stated that the group has 80,000 members, 120,000 members , 125,000 members, "150,000 supporters," and 125,000 "contributors and members." In 1992, when testifying against nutritionist licensing in Pennsylvania, Inlander told a legislative committee that since 1983, over 200,000 individuals had been members of his group. However, PMS's tax reports do not support such figures. In 1994, when I first noted the discrepancy, PMS's Federal Form 990 listed membership fees of $209,231. Since membership costs $20 per year, this translated to about 10,500 members. The group's Form 990s for 1995 through 2003 listed no membership dues income. However, a financial statement submitted with the California CT-2 form stated that membership fees were $148,664 for 1997 and $152,523 for 1998, which would translate to about 7,500 members.
PMS's publications described Charles Inlander as "America's leading health advocate," "America's foremost consumer health advocate," and the like. PMS itself now appears to be defunct. It hasn't published a new book since 1998; its Web site has not been updated for since November 2002; and, since 2000, its income from all sources has dropped sharply. Its Form 990 tax reports indicate the following:
|Publications||Electronic Rights||Total PMS Income||Inlander's
In 2006, a local newspaper noted that PMS stopped renewing memberships after 2001; closed its office in 2002; and no longer had members, employees, or an active board of directors . Despite these facts, its Web site was still describing PMS as "the largest medical consumer advocacy organization in the United States." 
In 2010, the Internal Revenue Service revoked PMS's federal tax-exempt status for failing to file an annual information return or notice with the IRS for three consecutive years.
- Wlazelek A. Consumer group is down to its last man. The Morning Call, Aug 23, 2006.
- Patient safety: Little leaps. Healthleaders magazine, June 2003.
- About the society. People's Medical Society Web site, accessed Aug 23, 2006.
This article was revised on June 17, 2011.