| Style over substance|
Philip DeFina is the founder of International Brain Research Foundation, an organization predominantly focused on issues of brain death and brain trauma. DeFina is a controversial doctor of clinical psychology who has received media attention for his promotion of fringe treatments for brain injury, such as use of hyperbaric chambers. None of his treatments have received support from mainstream medical or scientific organizations or publications. As such, medical experts and media commentators have criticized DeFina for offering treatments that "give families false hope while draining bank accounts."
DeFina received his doctorate in clinical psychology from a distributed learning college called Fielding Graduate University in 1995. At the time, Fielding Graduate University was a correspondence program and has since transitioned to primarily online programs. The clinical program at Fielding was accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1992. Fielding describes itself as a non-traditional school aimed at mid-career professionals looking for an advanced degree or a change in career paths.
Doubts and ambiguities discovered
DeFina submitted a declaration in support of Jahi McMath in October 2014 to the Superior Court of California, County of Alameda. The Declaration was made "under the penalty of perjury under the laws of the State of California that the foregoing is true and correct." Statement #2 states, "Attached to this Declaration is a true and correct copy of my Curriculum Vitae as Exhibit 'A.' It is incorporated herein, is made of my own personal knowledge and constitutes a Business Record under the California Evidence Code."
Under the Academic Appointments section, his CV states that from 2003 to present DeFina was a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry of the New York University School of Medicine. Statement #5 of his Declaration states "Currently I am a Research Assistant Professor, in the Department of Psychology, at New York University." According to the NYU Office of Faculty Records, DeFina's Research Assistant Professor faculty appointment ended 8/31/2007.
Under the Hospital Appointments section his CV states that from 2007 to present DeFina was the Clinical and Research Consultant for the Severe Disorders of Consciousness Program at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation. But in the March 2012 Observer-Tribune News article by Phil Garber entitled Praise and Questions over Chester Scientist's Work for People in Comas, it states, "A spokeswoman for Kessler said DeFina was affiliated with Kessler for about eighteen months until 2008, but would not comment further."
In United States District Court documents filed September 30, 2010, in the Southern District of New York, DeFina provided testimony on behalf of an eight-year-old autistic child in an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) case. The court document states "Dr. DeFina earned a B.A. and a Masters in educational psychology from New York University, two doctoral degrees in neurophysiology from Fielding Graduate University and Louisiana State University, respectively, and a post-doctoral degree in neuropsychology from Columbia University. Dr. DeFina is now the president of the American Board of School Neuropsychology, a professor at NYU's Medical School, and the chief consultant for the [Kessler] Institute of Rehabilitation Traumatic Brain Injury Program. He has taught and guest lectured at the University of Maryland, John's Hopkins, and Harvard. Dr. DeFina also has published extensively on learning disabilities. At the time of his testimony, Dr. DeFina was finishing a book on autism."
Contradictions and ambiguities include:
- Is DeFina's doctoral degree in clinical psychology as listed on his CV, or in neurophysiology as per his court testimony?
- Does DeFina have one Ph.D. or two?
- Did he ever attend Louisiana State University and graduate with a doctoral degree from that institution?
- Why would he state that he received a post-doctoral degree in neuropsychology from Columbia University, and was a professor at NYU's Medical School in 2010 when none of these are listed on his CV in 2014?
- The NYU Office of Faculty Records indicates he was never a professor in their medical school.
- The book DeFina was “finishing” on autism was never published.
- DeFina's testimony stated he "taught and guest lectured at the University of Maryland, John's Hopkins, and Harvard", but his CV shows no faculty appointments at any of these prestigious institutions, so it appears that he in fact did not teach at any of them.
DeFina purposely misstated his education and achievements to suit his ego and needs at the time, and he made blatant and deliberate lies to boost the appearance of his success and distinction.
Beware. What kind of mental assessment can you make of someone who lies to this extent, on public documents and under penalty of perjury to the court?
DeFina first gained media attention in 2011 when Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center in Secaucus, New Jersey sought to get state license to use hyperbaric treatment on autistic children. DeFina was slated to oversee the work. Previously DeFina had used hyperbaric treatment for individuals in a vegetative state. These treatments received widespread criticism for offering "families false hope while draining their bank accounts because insurance doesn’t cover it." In fact, previous work by DeFina and his colleague neurologist Jonathan Fellus cost families up to $100,000 in out-of-pocket expenses. Fellus described DeFina and his work as "where other doctors leave off, that’s where we pick up."
Then Senate Health Committee vice chairman Joseph Vitale was very critical of the hospital's motives, citing the change from a non-profit to a for-profit institute after it nearly went bankrupt. Vitale questioned the motives of the project saying "there is no real body of evidence that says a hyperbaric chamber in any manner treats children with autism. Do insurance companies pay for that treatment? The answer is no, they don’t. That means parents that are desperate for an answer for their children would pay out-of-pocket to have the procedure."
DeFina was quoted at the time as saying "the hospital will probably roll out some of those clinical programs, but I am not an advocate for them to do that until the research is done."
The article on the proposed autism treatment drew a lot of attention and criticism of DeFina and the hospital. It was published on November 27th 2011, by November 30th the hospital had pulled its application request and by December 2nd DeFina had been fired from the hospital. The controversy also put a halt to DeFina's nomination by Governor Chris Christie to the New Jersey Commission for Brain Injury Research, shortly after being fired by Meadowlands the nomination was withdrawn.
International Brain Research Foundation
The attention from the media also brought additional scrutiny to other projects by DeFina. He had started his own non-profit organization the International Brain Research Foundation in 2005 to "advance cutting-edge brain research through global collaboration." Press coverage called into question DeFina's salary draws citing an example in 2009 when he took a $483,460 salary for the year while the organization ran a $406,082 deficit. In 2011, 2012, 2013, DeFina continued to withdraw over $400,000 a year in salary, however, the organization was no longer running at a deficit.
The Foundation's work has "failed to gain acceptance by the neuroscientific community and his works have never been accepted for publication by any of the leading medical journals." The majority of reported funding earned by the International Brain Research Foundation for the last three years comes from offering specific services as opposed to research grants. DeFina himself has said his work costs families upwards of $150,000, and that he has " no choice but to charge until the medical and insurance industries accept his protocols."
One of DeFina's primary colleagues is Jonathan Fellus. He was an integral agent in the Meadowlands Hospital debacle and is a chief medical officer at the International Brain Research Foundation. In 2011, Fellus had his medical licence revoked and was forced to resign after he was accused of having sex with a patient he was treating at the rehabilitation department. Attorney General John J. Hoffman described the incident as violating "long-standing ethical standards and a specific Board of Medical Examiners rule prohibiting sexual contact between physicians and their patients." Despite all this, DeFina has allowed Fellus to continue his position as chief medical officer at the International Brain Research Foundation and in fact has been directly involved in some of their high profile work, most notably the Jahi McMath case.
In 2014, he once again gained media attention when he claimed that Jahi McMath, a young girl previously declared brain dead and being kept alive by life support, was actually not dead at all. The lawyer for the family used DeFina's analysis to threaten to sue to have the declaration of brain death reversed. Court-appointed, independent researchers rejected DeFina's analysis saying it was improperly done, did not show what he claimed, and used flawed methodology. After the independent analysis criticizing DeFina's work, McMath's lawyer has yet to actually file the lawsuit and the case continues in limbo. DeFina has attempted to use the McMath case to raise money online. McMath' heart stopped in 2018.
False FDA "approval"
The FDA issued the International Brain Research Foundation a Remove Full Clinical Hold letter on August 15, 2011 with regard to its Investigational New Drug Application (IND 111711) for its ACP/MCP intervention clinical trial. This letter states, "We have completed the review of your submission and have concluded that the clinical trial can be initiated." This Department of Defense-funded clinical trial has yet to be completed (as of August 2015).
On January 4, 2014, DeFina and Fellus were interviewed on the radio program Coast to Coast AM to discuss their work "helping people awaken from deep comas as well as the controversial case of 13-year-old Jahi McMath." According to this interview, "DeFina announced that their protocol for treating persistent vegetative state has received FDA approval."
In DeFina's declaration in support of Jahi McMath in October 2014, he stated in Item 9: "I am also the Chief Scientific Officer for the International Brain Research Foundation (IBRF), a Non-Profit Organization which works extensively with brain damaged individuals, including those described as brain dead. The IBRF has an FDA approved protocol for treating people with disorders of consciousness." DeFina went further in Item 15 to state "I personally have seen only one other case such as Jahi McMath's wherein a person pronounced brain dead, and confirmed by more than five (5) US Doctors was, with more sensitive testing, of the type performed on Jahi McMath, found at a date remote from the insult to the brain, determined to have activity in the brain. That individual has been treated through the IBRF using an FDA approved protocol for brain death patients and shown improvement in her state of altered consciousness.
Although DeFina's declaration in support of Jahi McMath were made under penalty of perjury, these statements were in fact false. The International Brain Research Foundation does not have FDA approval to "treat people", it only has FDA approval to conduct a research study to test the safety and efficacy of its protocol. DeFina lied in his testimony by stating that the International Brain Research Foundation has FDA approval "for treating people with disorders of consciousness", as well as by stating they have an "FDA approved protocol for brain death patients".
- Meadowlands hospital neuroscientist fired over controversial autism treatment
- McMath Hearing Postponed to Provide Additional Medical Evidence (10/06/2014) Dolan Law Firm
- G.B. and L. B., on behalf of their minor child, N.B., and on their own behalves v. Tuxedo Union Free School District 09-CV-859(KMK) Opinion and Order. United States District Court. Southern District of New York.
- Questions, risks surround hyperbaric chamber treatments for autistic children
- Praise and questions over Chester scientist’s work for people in comas
- 990 Form 2011
- 990 Form 2012
- 990 Form 2013
- New Jersey doctor, who consulted in Jahi McMath case, suspended over sex with patient
- Tests show Jahi McMath has brain activity, lawyer says
- Help Save A Human Life
- Jahi McMath, the Calif. girl in life-support controversy, is now dead by Samantha Schmidt (June 29, 2018 at 6:28 AM) The Washington Post.
- IND 111711 Remove Full Clinical Hold August 15, 2011 letter from FDA to Dr. Park (archived from March 13, 2016).
- Reviving Coma Patients (January 4, 2014) Host: John B. Wells, Guests Dr. Jonathan Fellus, Dr. Philip DeFina. Coast to Coast AM.