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Crowdfunding campaigns raise millions for potentially dangerous treatments, study finds

New research has found that crowdfunding campaigns like GoFundMe have brought in millions of dollars for potentially harmful medical treatments.

» RELATED: Need money? Crowdfunding without getting scammed

For the analysis, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from Atlanta’s Shepherd Center and the New York University School of Medicine sifted through more than a thousand campaigns between November 2015 and December 2017 that contained keywords, such as “homeopathy” and “cancer,” and were aimed at funding a specific treatment.

Such treatments included homeopathy or naturopathy for cancer; stem cell therapy for brain or spinal cord injury; hyperbaric oxygen therapy for brain injury and antibiotic therapy for chronic Lyme disease.


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The researchers found that the 1,059 medical crowdfunding campaigns intended for treatments that either don’t have the scientific support behind them or are considered potentially risky raised nearly $6.8 million, or 25 percent of the fundraising goals.


The most money — more than $3 million — was raised by 474 campaigns collecting funds for homeopathic or naturopathic cancer treatments. Funds for stem cell therapies for spinal and brain injuries from 188 and 93 campaigns, respectively, raised nearly $1.6 million altogether. Another 190 campaigns aiming to raise money for HBOT collected more than $785,000 and 114 campaigns seeking funds for long-term antibiotic therapy for chronic Lyme disease raised nearly $690,000.


» RELATED: More parents turn to crowdfunding to afford time off with new baby


The campaigners intended to visit clinics in Germany, Mexico, New Orleans, Panama, Thailand, India, China and Mexico and more.


Ford Vox, study author and Emory University professor, told STAT News that medical crowdfunding “is a huge new economy... People can be desperate in these situations [and] can be taken advantage of.”


“In some cases, that can be a boon for patients who otherwise might not be able to afford needed medical care,” STAT reported. “But the new study highlights how the crowdfunding economy allows clinics to promote, and profit from, unproven therapies that could pose risks to patients — and offer false hope.”

» RELATED: Family accused of setting up fake GoFundMe account for daughter

In a statement to STAT, GoFundMe spokesperson Heidi Hagberg added that their company encourages folks to fully research campaigns before donating. “Ultimately it is up to the GoFundMe community to decide which campaigns to donate to,” she said.


The recent study does have a few limitations, which the authors addressed in their research. For one, only five treatments were examined across four platforms, including GoFundMe, YouCaring, CrowdRise and FundRazr, and as STAT pointed out, “there’s no way of knowing how people ended up using the money they raised.”

Read the full study, currently behind a paywall, at jamanetwork.com.

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