His peers from across the country had just voted him the next president of their national organization, the American College of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. (His term would begin in June 2005.) Thomas' résumé is impressive: In 1998, he was the first oral surgeon to be appointed president of the medical staff at Shawnee Mission Medical Center. He practices on staff at Shawnee Mission and at Saint Luke's South Hospital, according to his Web site. His own dental practice at 128th Street and Metcalf in Overland Park is the size of a strip mall. The Web site of the American College of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons lists as its president-elect: Dr. Steven L. Thomas, DDS, MD.
In February 2003, though, the Kansas Board of Healing Arts -- the state's medical licensing arm -- had filed a lawsuit against Thomas stemming from a patient's complaint that part of Thomas' title was bunk.
Though he advertised himself as having a medical doctorate in addition to his doctorate in dental surgery, the Kansas board found that Thomas had never completed the required residency or taken a state licensing exam for his MD. Thomas had earned the degree from what consumer advocates call a "diploma mill": the University of Health Sciences in Antigua, an Internet-based medical school in the West Indies.
In October 2003, Kansas District Court Judge Larry McClain ruled that because Thomas operated within the scope of his dental license, there was "no public harm from using the designation MD."
The Kansas medical board has appealed the decision, arguing that McClain's judgment inhibits the board from serving as a watchdog for patients. The board's attorney, Mark Stafford, says the Kansas Court of Appeals may decide whether to pass judgment on or rehear Thomas' case by the end of the summer.
For the most part, Thomas has a gleaming academic history. He graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City's School of Dentistry in 1982 and entered a residency program at Truman Medical Center. Kansas granted him a license to practice dentistry in 1986. By 1990, Thomas had completed a residency program in oral and maxillofacial surgery at the Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan and had earned a master's degree in dental surgery from Baker University. He is licensed in Kansas to perform jaw, facial, plastic and cosmetic surgery.
But Thomas wanted more credentials.
In the late '90s, he applied to the University of Health Sciences-Antigua's "Non-Traditional Clinical Pathways Program."
The university's crash-course programs allow an array of students -- oral and maxillofacial surgeons, chiropractors, veterinarians -- to earn degrees in just 18 months online. Prior to graduation, students must spend at least one week attending seminars and visiting hospitals and clinics on the island. This residency apparently leaves enough time for exploring the area's tourist attractions. "Antigua is renowned for its superb coral beaches," the University's Web site notes. "The neighboring sister island of Barbuda with a population of 1200 and a size of 62 square miles also has excellent beaches and is well known for its fish, lobster and 87 sunken wrecks, just waiting to be explored." The going rate for a West Indies doctorate: $19,525.
Thomas tells the Pitch that there's nothing fishy about his degree. Admission to the program, he tells the Pitch by e-mail, was based on his previous training: "completion of an undergraduate college degree program, completion of a four-year dental education program and completion of a recognized residency in oral and maxillofacial surgery that involved four years in a hospital-based program." His medical program took 18 months, the first year in "didactic lectures, both on-campus in Antigua and off-campus in selected areas of medicine," he writes. "Clinical rotations also occurred during that time. The last six months was spent in the U.S. on additional clinical rotations and electives.... Students and graduates of UHSA were told during and after completion of the medical degree program that the curriculum met or exceeded the minimum licensure requirements of all fifty states in the U.S."
But the UHSA has been blacklisted by medical licensing boards in California and Indiana, and the program has drawn scrutiny in Kansas because it fast-tracks the learning process. According to state guidelines regulating accelerated medical programs, doctors must spend at least three years earning their degrees.
The added MD can give a dentist "turf privilege," making him appear to be the most qualified practitioner in a geographic area, says Dr. Robert Baratz, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud. Strapped with professional obligations, many medical professionals obtain such certifications from online medical schools.
But, Baratz says, "The amount of information you need is so extensive that I don't think it's possible to attain it by self-study or from distance learning, particularly in the time frame these folks claim they do." (Baratz earned a DDS and a Ph.D. in anatomy and cellular biology from Northwestern in 1972 and 1975, respectively, and an MD from the Boston University School of Medicine in 1987. Baratz works in private practice and as an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine.) "The fact that they can pass a multiple-choice exam does not show knowledge or medical acumen, and a minimal amount of that is clinically relevant."
Stafford, with the Kansas Board of Healing Arts, agrees. "When a person does use those letters in connection with their name, it represents more than just a degree from a college. It represents that the person has done post-graduate training and that the person has successfully passed a licensing exam," Stafford tells the Pitch. No one is accusing Thomas of malpractice, Stafford says, but the board contends that Thomas is misrepresenting himself as a state-licensed doctor.
Thomas says he isn't hurting anybody. "My practice is limited to oral and maxillofacial surgery, and I am licensed by the Kansas Dental Board to do so," he tells the Pitch. "I hold a number of degrees, and my licensing board has approved my right to display those educational credentials. I do not practice medicine and, as such, it is my contention that I am not under the jurisdiction of the Kansas Board of Healing Arts."