At Least 13,000 People Have Donated Money on GoFundMe for Unproven Cancer Treatments, and It Could Be Dangerous
- About one-third of GoFundMe campaigns are medical fundraisers.
- A new study in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, found that at least 13,600 people have donated to GoFundMe campaigns raising money for unproven cancer treatments.
- Jeremy Snyder, one of the study's authors, told Business Insider that crowdfunding campaigns are being used to spread misinformation and pull people away from effective cancer treatments.
More than 13,600 people have donated to GoFundMe campaigns that are raising money for unproven cancer treatments, two researchers in Canada have found.
The authors, who published their findings Thursday in The Lancet, looked at 220 GoFundMe campaigns that raised a total of $1.4 million for homeopathy and other alternative treatments. Homeopathic products — most of which contain diluted drugs, vitamins, and minerals — are not effective treatments for cancer or other diseases, according to the National Institutes of Health, and they have been linked to some negative health effects.
Beyond homeopathy, cancer patients raised money for a variety of other unproven treatments. Co-author Jeremy Snyder, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Canada, told Business Insider that some of the most frequently cited treatments include juicing, herbal remedies, vitamin infusions, and acupuncture.
According to the study, complementary and alternative medicine is becoming more popular, with roughly 50% of all cancer patients turning to it. Some people see GoFundMe campaigns for alternative treatments as their "last and only hope," the study said.
But using alternative methods for treating cancer has been linked to a lower chance of survival, the authors wrote. Snyder told Business Insider that he believes GoFundMe should crack down on campaigns that seek money for unproven cancer treatments.
In a statement, GoFundMe said it aims to be a trusted fundraising platform, and its policies ensure that donors receive refunds if their money does not go to the intended recipient.
"Our goal is always to provide the most effective, supportive, and safest place for people to fundraise for causes and needs that are important to them," the statement said. "Our role is to provide users with social fundraising tools to raise money for their cause or need. While we hope to be a helpful resource for personal fundraising, we believe it is not our place to tell them what decision to make."
Some cancer patients don't trust hospitals enough to seek treatment, while others use alternative medicine as a last resort
Snyder and co-author Timothy Caulfield found that cancer patients launched GoFundMe campaigns for one of three reasons: 38% used unproven treatments in addition to legitimate ones, 29% were either afraid of hospital treatments or did not trust them, and 31% weren't able to undergo a traditional treatment.
Many people decided to forego mainstream treatments based on misinformed beliefs, Snyder said, referencing campaigns that called hospitals "death factories" or said chemotherapy is a poison.
"People have turned down mainstream treatments in the past, but what is different about this is that crowdfunding is giving them the money to actually do that," Snyder said. "I think that's really concerning, because clearly people are dying as a result of that."
Snyder said oncologists should be aware that crowdfunding can make it easier for people with a terminal illness to spend money on unproven alternatives if they do not accept their doctor's diagnosis. This trend can normalize ineffective methods and create a false hope among patients, he said.
"I have a lot of compassion for that, I certainly understand that view. But instead of pursuing palliative treatment or accepting that diagnosis, they were again empowered to try everything, put a lot of money into these treatments [that] are clearly ineffective," Snyder said. "In doing so, [they] may be causing themselves additional pain and suffering."
Crowdfunding helps many people pay their medical bills
At the same time, crowdfunding campaigns make it possible for many Americans to pay their medical bills for mainstream treatments. GoFundMe has said that one-third of its campaigns are medical, and some of these fundraisers have made headlines for helping patients pay for huge expenses.
After a rugby player at the University of California Berkeley was partially paralyzed during a championship match in 2017, a GoFundMe campaign raised more than $830,000 to help with his rehabilitation costs. Another GoFundMe campaign raised more than $2 million toward an experimental gene therapy for a girl with Sanfilippo syndrome, a rare genetic disorder.
Snyder said his research on alternative cancer treatments, combined with past work on crowdfunding campaigns for unproven stem-cell procedures, indicates a dangerous trend.
In October 2018, a paper published by a different group of researchers found that at least 1,000 medical crowdfunding campaigns have raised millions of dollars toward treatments that are unproven or could be dangerous. The October paper looked beyond cancer, analyzing treatments for brain injury, spinal cord injury, and chronic Lyme disease.
"Crowdfunding is being used to pour a lot of money into clearly ineffective treatments, which is a waste of money," Snyder said. "It might be pulling people away from effective treatments, and it is actually spreading a lot of misinformation."