Crowdfunding is big business for healthcare. GoFundMe alone has raised more than $5 billion in the last eight years, with one out of every three campaigns raising money to cover healthcare costs, according to GoFundMe’s CEO. Often, these campaigns are for the uninsured or underinsured, and help provide legitimate medical care.
Brain injury specialist Ford Vox and a team of three medical ethicists searched GoFundMe and three lesser-used crowdfunding sites (YouCaring, CrowdRise, and FundRazr) for campaigns involving questionable treatments: those that don’t do much at all, and others that do something potentially dangerous.
They focused on five treatments that were showing up a lot in their results, searching the sites systematically for US- and Canada-based campaigns from the last three years that were specifically for those five. They found 1,059 campaigns that fit the bill, with the collective goal of raising more than $27 million, and hitting about a quarter of that target.
Just less than half of the campaigns were for an obvious culprit: homeopathic or naturopathic treatments for cancer, which raised $3.5 million across 474 campaigns. Around 200 campaigns were raising funds for hyberbaric oxygen therapy for brain injury, which supposedly “enhances the body’s natural healing process by inhalation of 100 percent oxygen in a total body chamber.” Much like homeopathy, it’s ineffective for anything other than efficiently emptying people’s pockets. While these treatments themselves might not do any direct harm, the harms of untreated cancer are glaring. (And we probably don’t want to be funneling funds towards the people offering these therapies.)
The other treatments on the list were less popular, but offer more direct dangers. Stem cell therapy for brain injury or spinal cord injury carries substantial risks, while unproven claims of benefits are oversold. And long-term antibiotic therapy for so-called “chronic Lyme disease” can damage the body’s microbial partners, as well as causing antibiotic resistance and heightened risk of life-threatening infections. Together, these made up around 400 campaigns, raising $2.5 million.
The analysis identified some of the practitioners in question, mentioned in the crowdfunding campaigns: nine individual clinics, including stem cell clinics across the US, Mexico, Panama, and Asia, as well as homeopathic and naturopathic clinics in Germany and Mexico. Almost all of the campaigns were on GoFundMe, with just two percent on YouCaring and none on CrowdRise or FundRazr.
It’s not possible to say how far this problem extends, because the analysis was restricted to just these five treatments and four crowdfunding sites. But that means these figures are all conservative estimates, and that with a broader search, the picture would likely be worse.
The results suggest that “a wide scope of campaigns for unsupported, ineffective, or potentially dangerous treatments are moderately successful in obtaining funding,” write Vox and his colleagues. “Assuming the funds raised are spent to pay for these treatments, donors indirectly contributed millions of dollars to practitioners to deliver dubious, possibly unsafe care.”