Crowdfunding Quackery

One of the most heartbreaking things we all see on social media are appeals for financial help to fund medical treatment. Especially here in the U.S., where healthcare is less readily available to low-income people than in most developed countries, it has become common to see crowdfunding campaigns raising money for medical care. It is inspiring that people are so often willing to help strangers with medical expenses, but it is sad and wrong that patients have to rely on such ad hoc methods for funding the care they need.

As sad as this inherently is, it becomes depressing and infuriating when these crowdfunding campaigns are intended to pay for unproven or quack therapies. Crowdfunding provides a new venue for people to be misled and exploited by proponents of untested, ineffective, and dangerous medical treatments, Now, not only the desperation of patients and their families are taken advantage of, but also compassion of well-meaning strangers who contribute to these campaigns.

Two recent studies have been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) investigating this issue, and these have been publicized through reporting by NPRand other media outlets.

Vox F, Folkers KM, Turi A, Caplan AL. Medical Crowdfunding for Scientifically Unsupported or Potentially Dangerous TreatmentsJAMA. 2018;320(16):1705–1706. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.10264

This study looked at homeopathyand naturopathyfor cancer, hyperbaric oxygen therapy,stem cell treatmentfor brain and spinal cord injury, and long-term antibiotics for Chronic Lyme Disease. All. But the last will be familiar to readers as examples of methods that are dubious or simply don’t work. The study found:

More than 1000 medical crowdfunding campaigns for 5 treatments that are unsupported by evidence or potentially unsafe raised more than $6.7 million… These results reveal that a wide scope of cam- paigns for unsupported, ineffective, or potentially dangerous treatments are moderately successful in obtaining funding. Assuming that the funds raised are spent to pay for these treatments, donors indirectly contributed millions of dollars to practitioners to deliver dubious, possibly unsafe care. 

Snyder J, Turner L, Crooks VA. Crowdfunding for Unproven Stem Cell–Based Interventions. JAMA.2018;319(18):1935–1936. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.3057

The second study focused specifically on stem cell therapies and found similarly large amounts of money committed to campaigns for questionable treatment and also misleading appeals to donors:

Our search identified 408 campaigns seeking donations for stem cell interventions advertised by 50 individual businesses. These campaigns requested $7?439?308 and received pledges for $1?450?011 from 13?050 donors.

Crowdfunding campaigns for unproven stem cell–based interventions underemphasize risks and exaggerate the efficacy of these interventions. These findings suggest that medical crowdfunding campaigns convey potentially misleading messages about stem cell–based interventions. These claims may be especially powerful when embedded within compelling personal narratives. 

As usual, there are no similar studies looking at how much crowdfunding there is for unproven and quack veterinary therapies, but it takes little time and effort to find such campaigns online:

Chi Chi’s Recent Medical Expenses

Chi Chi has an integrated treatment plan that includes both traditional and holistic treatments…Chi Chi takes a number of traditional and Chinese medications to manage her medical conditions… and regular Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatments

Help Give Cayman a Fighting Chance!

extensive therapies including laser, acupuncture

Paralyzed Rescue Dog – Pani

water therapy and laser therapy… cranberry supplements and probiotics…has also been recommended joint supplements

Grace’s Health Treatment?

the best course of treatment for quality of life and longevity is to go a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) route.  With a combination of a fully holistic/organic diet, herbal supplements, chinese medicine and an aggressive 3-day Vitamin drip protocol

Of course, I don’t believe the people making these appeals are doing anything wrong. They desperately want to help the animals they love, and they are willing to ask for help even when that may be difficult for them to do. And those who donate to these campaigns are illustrating the best qualities of the human spirit, compassion and concern for not only friends and family but complete strangers. Most of the appeals I have seen, including those that\ mention alternative therapies, do describe appropriate, science-based medical care, so hopefully these animals are getting the real treatment they need to get well.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that these animal owners and the good Samaritans who help them are paying for treatments that are at best questionable and, in many cases, clearly do not and cannot work. Though the practitioners offering them likely do so believing they are helping, at some point being a healthcare provider should mean knowing better and being required to provide effective treatment. It is hard not to wonder how many pets are harmed by the false belief in these therapies, and how much effective medical care could be paid for with the money that goes to unsupported or quack therapies.

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