In Memoriam: John H. Renner, Healthcare Consumer Advocate

Medscape General Medicine 


John H. Renner, MD, died following emergency surgery for a ruptured aortic aneurysm on September 2, 2000, a few days before his 68 th birthday. He was without a doubt the most public-spirited health educator I have ever known.

A devoted husband and father, John is survived by his wife, Diana; daughter, Andrea Simon, and her husband, Jody (Los Angeles, Calif); son, Craig Renner, and his wife, Lynn (Madison, Wis); and 2 grandsons.

John was born in Newtown, Indiana, and grew up in Auburn, Indiana. He graduated from Dartmouth College and completed medical school at George Washington University in Washington, DC. In 1970, after a decade as a family physician in rural Virginia, he taught at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, where he helped found the Department of Family Medicine and Practice and served as its chairman and as a professor. In 1980, he moved to Missouri and established the family practice residency program at St. Mary's Hospital (now Trinity-Midwest) in Kansas City.

John also cofounded the National Patient Education in Primary Care Conference, now in its 22nd year. I was privileged to meet him when he invited me and 2 other anti-quackery activists to conduct a plenary session at the 1983 conference. He became so concerned about the problem that he shifted his professional focus. Soon afterward, he opened the Consumer Health Information Research Institute in Kansas City and devoted his full energy to public and professional education, with an emphasis on exposing quackery and fraud. At various times, he hosted a local radio program, wrote a column for The Kansas City Star, and assisted law enforcement agencies as a consultant.

At the time of his death, he was a clinical professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Medical School, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, and chief medical officer of Health Scout, an Internet health information service.

Throughout his professional career, John dedicated his energy and passion to providing reliable health information. His most unique activity was his willingness to provide free telephone advice nearly every day. Over the years, he helped thousands of people disentangle themselves from mistaken ideas and misguided practitioners. And he graciously shared his vast store of information with reporters, health professionals, attorneys, insurance investigators, licensing board officials, and other regulators.

John had a remarkable ability to spot patterns in quack activities. As AIDS and chronic fatigue syndrome came to national attention, for example, he observed that most of the quack cancer clinics began offering the same "treatments" for AIDS and chronic fatigue syndrome -- a tendency he coined "rascal rollover."

After attending many expositions sponsored by quackery promoters, John noted that they rarely criticized each other's theories and methods. It seemed that there was plenty of room for everyone. One day, after a lecture, John asked the speaker whether his treatment could be taken at the same time as "moonbeam therapy" -- a method John had invented on the spot. "Oh yes," the quack responded immediately, "Many of my patients are taking moonbeam therapy. They work beautifully together."

John loved to talk about "teachable moments." One of his favorite activities was to observe health-food-store personnel interacting with customers. Sometimes, after hearing dangerous advice, he would use Socratic techniques to tactfully point out the medical and legal risks of giving such advice. Several clerks admitted that their job requirements made them uncomfortable and promised that they would quit.

Following John's death, Robert S. Baratz, MD, PhD, also a healthcare consumer activist, posted this message to the health-fraud discussion group in which John participated.

The John Renner I knew was through his writing and a voice with an engaging presence -- a friendly person that one could like somewhat quickly. You couldn't have a 'short' conversation with John. That 'brief' phone call (minus a few interruptions with patients and other calls) seemed to go on for about an hour or more. It was an opportunity to compare notes, share information, and teach each other. He had a way of covering a lot of ground in a short time, but you never felt rushed or pumped for information. He clearly set an example for all of us with his knowledge, dedication, and leadership. I too would like to find a way to memorialize his efforts and activities. If we could ask him what he would suggest, he would say that the best way would be to carry on his work.

To which I say, "Amen."

Tax-deductible contributions in his memory can be made to the National Council for Reliable Health Information, Box 1276, Loma Linda, CA 92354.