Nearly a decade ago, Jamie Anderson hit his highest weight ever: 618 pounds. Depression drove him to eat and eat. He tried all kinds of diets, losing and regaining weight again and again. Then, four years ago, a friend nudged him to join a gym, and with a trainer's guidance, he embarked on a life-altering path.
Ethicists become particularly alarmed when medical crowdfunding appeals are for scientifically unfounded and potentially harmful interventions.
"The big catalyst for all of this is, I was diagnosed as a diabetic," says Anderson, a 46-year-old sales associate in the auto care department at Walmart. Within three years, he was down to 276 pounds but left with excess skin, which sagged from his belly to his mid-thighs.
Plastic surgery would cost $4,000 more than the sum his health insurance approved. That's when Anderson, who lives in Cabot, Arkansas, a suburb outside of Little Rock, turned to online crowdfunding to raise money. In a few months last year, current and former co-workers and friends of friends came up with that amount, covering the remaining expenses for the tummy tuck and overnight hospital stay.
The crowdfunding site that he used, CoFund Health, aimed to give his donors some peace of mind about where their money was going. Unlike GoFundMe and other platforms that don't restrict how donations are spent, Anderson's funds were loaded on a debit card that only worked at health care providers, so the donors "were assured that it was for medical bills only," he says.
CoFund Health was started in January 2019 in response to concerns about the legitimacy of many medical crowdfunding campaigns. As crowdfunding for health-related expenses has gained more traction on social media sites, with countless campaigns seeking to subsidize the high costs of care, it has given rise to some questionable transactions and legitimate ethical concerns.
Common examples of alleged fraud have involved misusing the donations for nonmedical purposes, feigning or embellishing the story of one's own unfortunate plight or that of another person, or impersonating someone else with an illness. Ethicists become particularly alarmed when medical crowdfunding appeals are for scientifically unfounded and potentially harmful interventions.
About 20 percent of American adults reported giving to a crowdfunding campaign for medical bills or treatments, according to a survey by AmeriSpeak Spotlight on Health from NORC, formerly called the National Opinion Research Center, a non-partisan research institution at the University of Chicago. The self-funded poll, conducted in November 2019, included 1,020 interviews with a representative sample of U.S. households. Researchers cited a 2019 City University of New York-Harvard study, which noted that medical bills are the most common basis for declaring personal bankruptcy.
Some experts contend that crowdfunding platforms should serve as gatekeepers in prohibiting campaigns for unproven treatments. Facing a dire diagnosis, individuals may go out on a limb to try anything and everything to prolong and improve the quality of their lives.
They may enroll in well-designed clinical trials, or they could fall prey "to snake oil being sold by people out there just making a buck," says Jeremy Snyder, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, and the lead author of a December 2019 article in The Hastings Report about crowdfunding for dubious treatments.
For instance, crowdfunding campaigns have sought donations for homeopathic healing for cancer, unapproved stem cell therapy for central nervous system injury, and extended antibiotic use for chronic Lyme disease, according to an October 2018 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Ford Vox, the lead author and an Atlanta-based physician specializing in brain injury, maintains that a repository should exist to monitor the outcomes of experimental treatments. "At the very least, there ought to be some tracking of what happens to the people the funds are being raised for," he says. "It would be great for an independent organization to do so."
"Even if it appears like a good cause, consumers should still do some research before donating to a crowdfunding campaign."
The Federal Trade Commission, the national consumer watchdog, cautions online that "it might be impossible for you to know if the cause is real and if the money actually gets to the intended recipient." Another caveat: Donors can't deduct contributions to individuals on tax returns.
"Even if it appears like a good cause, consumers should still do some research before donating to a crowdfunding campaign," says Malini Mithal, associate director of financial practices at the FTC. "Don't assume all medical treatments are tested and safe."
Before making any donation, it would be wise to check whether a crowdfunding site offers some sort of guarantee if a campaign ends up being fraudulent, says Kristin Judge, chief executive and founder of the Cybercrime Support Network, a Michigan-based nonprofit that serves victims before, during, and after an incident. They should know how the campaign organizer is related to the intended recipient and note whether any direct family members and friends have given funds and left supportive comments.
Donating to vetted charities offers more assurance than crowdfunding that the money will be channeled toward helping someone in need, says Daniel Billingsley, vice president of external affairs for the Oklahoma Center of Nonprofits. "Otherwise, you could be putting money into all sorts of scams." There is "zero accountability" for the crowdfunding site or the recipient to provide proof that the dollars were indeed funneled into health-related expenses.
Even if donors may have limited recourse against scammers, the "platforms have an ethical obligation to protect the people using their site from fraud," says Bryanna Moore, a postdoctoral fellow at Baylor College of Medicine's Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy. "It's easy to take advantage of people who want to be charitable."
There are "different layers of deception" on a broad spectrum of fraud, ranging from "outright lying for a self-serving reason" to publicizing an imaginary illness to collect money genuinely needed for basic living expenses. With medical campaigns being a top category among crowdfunding appeals, it's "a lot of money that's exchanging hands," Moore says.
The advent of crowdfunding "reveals and, in some ways, reinforces a health care system that is totally broken," says Jessica Pierce, a faculty affiliate in the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Denver. "The fact that people have to scrounge for money to get life-saving treatment is unethical."
Crowdfunding also highlights socioeconomic and racial disparities by giving an unfair advantage to those who are social-media savvy and capable of crafting a compelling narrative that attracts donors. Privacy issues enter into the picture as well, because telling that narrative entails revealing personal details, Pierce says, particularly when it comes to children, "who may not be able to consent at a really informed level."
CoFund Health, the crowdfunding site on which Anderson raised the money for his plastic surgery, offers to help people write their campaigns and copy edit for proper language, says Matthew Martin, co-founder and chief executive officer. Like other crowdfunding sites, it retains a few percent of the donations for each campaign. Martin is the husband of Anderson's acquaintance from high school.
So far, the site, which is based in Raleigh, North Carolina, has hosted about 600 crowdfunding campaigns, some completed and some still in progress. Campaigns have raised as little as $300 to cover immediate dental expenses and as much as $12,000 for cancer treatments, Martin says, but most have set a goal between $5,000 and $10,000.
Whether or not someone's campaign is based on fact or fiction remains for prospective donors to decide.
The services could be cosmetic—for example, a breast enhancement or reduction, laser procedures for the eyes or skin, and chiropractic care. A number of campaigns have sought funding for transgender surgeries, which many insurers consider optional, he says.
In July 2019, a second site was hatched out of pet owners' requests for assistance with their dogs' and cats' medical expenses. Money raised on CoFund My Pet can only be used at veterinary clinics. Martin says the debit card would be declined at other merchants, just as its CoFund Health counterpart for humans will be rejected at places other than health care facilities, dental and vision providers, and pharmacies.
Whether or not someone's campaign is based on fact or fiction remains for prospective donors to decide. If a donor were to regret a transaction, he says the site would reach out to the campaign's owner but ultimately couldn't force a refund, Martin explains, because "it's hard to chase down fraud without having access to people's health records."
In some crowdfunding campaigns, the individual needs some or all the donated resources to pay for travel and lodging at faraway destinations to receive care, says Snyder, the health sciences professor and crowdfunding report author. He suggests people only give to recipients they know personally.
"That may change the calculus a little bit," tipping the decision in favor of donating, he says. As long as the treatment isn't harmful, the funds are a small gesture of support. "There's some value in that for preserving hope or just showing them that you care."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”