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Health and wellness

Medical crowdfunding raises millions for dubious and dangerous cures

  • A study found 1,000 campaigns that had raised US$68 million in three years
  • Some of the treatments were free, some unnecessary and others dangerous
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2018, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 October, 2018, 7:16pm

Online appeals to help sick people by raising money for unfounded and sometimes dangerous treatments and purported cures bring in millions of dollars each year, researchers say.

The study in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at crowdfunding activity from 2015 to 2017 and “identified more than 1,000 campaigns that raised nearly US$6.8 million”.

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“This money is wasted at best and harmful at worst,” researchers wrote on the site healthaffairs.org.

Four crowdfunding sites, including the most well-known, GoFundMe, collected the money.

Researchers focused on homeopathic or naturopathic cancer treatments, hyperbaric oxygen therapy for brain injury, stem cell therapies for brain and spinal cord injury and long-term antibiotic therapy for chronic Lyme Disease.

The study was limited in scope by focusing only on these five treatments and four crowdfunding platforms.

But the dangers posed by such approaches are real, according to co-author Ford Vox, a doctor at the Brain Injury Programme of the Shepherd Centre in Atlanta, Georgia.

Patients who pursue naturopathic or homeopathic treatments for cancer are five times more likely to die than those who get chemotherapy and other standard treatments, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Stem cell injections for brain and spinal cord injury are being studied, but such clinical trials cost the patients nothing and are constrained by strict laws.

“It’s definitely a big red flag when people say that they’re raising money to get some experimental stem cell treatment,” Vox says.

“They are really playing with fire,” he says of clinics that offer experimental stem cell injections. Key risks include stroke, tumours, infections, meningitis and other painful conditions.

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And for those who pursue naturopathy or homeopathy for cancer, he adds: “You may well die.”

But researchers found nine practitioners, identified by name, in eight countries where people intended to visit.

They included “clinics in Germany and Mexico for homeopathic or naturopathic cancer treatments, a New Orleans clinic offering hyperbaric oxygen therapy for brain injury, and clinics in the United States, Panama, Thailand, India, China, and Mexico for stem-cell therapies”.

Vox says the problem starts when people “read something online and get really energised about that, outside the counsel of their doctor.”

The boom of crowdfunding allows everyday people to “really raise funds they couldn’t have otherwise”, he says.