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Is crowdfunding for cancer patients paying for ‘quackery’?

Since 2012 appeals on UK crowdfunding sites for alternative cancer ‘treatment’ have raised £8m

Louise Prime

Friday, 14 September 2018

Many of the cancer ‘treatments’ paid for by UK crowdfunding are not evidence-based and could even cause harm, researchers have warned. In a report* in the BMJ, some experts are now calling for fundraising sites to vet appeals to avoid exploitation by ‘cranks, charlatans and conmen who prey on the vulnerable’.

The article points out that JustGiving’s own figures show that more than 2,300 UK cancer-related appeals were set up on its site in 2016, seven times more than in 2015. And a charity that promotes scientific thinking, the Good Thinking Society, has revealed that appeals on UK crowdfunding sites for cancer treatment with an alternative health element have raised £8m since 2012, most of which was for treatment abroad. Its project director Michael Marshall said: “We are concerned that so many UK patients are raising huge sums for treatments which are not evidence-based and which in some cases may even do them harm.”

The report quotes some people who firmly believe that alternative treatments paid for by crowdfunding have benefited cancer patients. But it notes that alternative treatment centres tend to publish individual patient testimonials, rather than data on treatment efficacy.

The Good Thinking Society is calling for crowdfunding sites to vet a cancer appeal before allowing it to be published “especially if it contains terminology that raises red flags for quackery”. Michael Marshall argued: “If these platforms want to continue to benefit from the goodwill of their users – and, indeed, to profit from the fees they charge each of their fundraisers – they have a responsibility to ensure that they do not facilitate the exploitation of vulnerable people.” But others quoted in the report said that, although they are strongly in favour of evidence-based medicine, it would be simply impracticable to disallow funding for treatment at ‘quack clinics’”.

Christian Ottensmeier, professor in experimental cancer treatment at the University of Southampton, said he wants patients and their doctors to be far better informed about what they are paying for – rather than a ban on people using crowdfunding pages to fund treatment at particular clinics. He added that although he has no problem with the idea of using drugs for diseases for which they have not been tested, this “needs a careful conversation with the patient about the chances, the risk, and the costs”.

But the idea of a ban is supported by Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, whose own research focused on the critical evaluation of alternative medicine, and whose stated goal is “to provide objective evidence, reliable information and critical assessment”. He pointed out that crowdfunding organisations already reject appeals involving violence or illegal activity, and argued: “Crowdfunding for a terror attack is out of the question. Crowdfunding for cancer quackery is not any better and must be stopped.”


*Newman M. Is cancer fundraising fuelling quackery? BMJ 2018; 362: k3829 doi: 10.1136/bmj.k3829.

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