Field of Science

Questionable for-profit cancer center profits from alternative therapies

It sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory: a secretive businessman founds a for-profit medical center to treat cancer.  His hospitals offer conventional treatments but also sell highly questionable, unscientific treatments to vulnerable patients. These treatments help to increase profits.  The businessman uses the profits from his cancer hospitals to support his favorite right-wing causes.  Patients have no idea that the fees they pay for treatment help support these causes.

It may sound unbelievable, but it's true.  Most of this story was described in a lengthy exposé just published in the Washington Post on Christmas day.  The Post revealed that Richard Stephenson, the founder of a large for-profit cancer center, is also one of the primary funding sources for Freedom Works, a right-wing Tea Party organization that played a major role in the 2012 elections.  As the Post story described him:
[Stephenson is] "a reclusive Illinois millionaire who has exerted increasing control over one of Washington’s most influential conservative grass-roots organizations."
Among other examples, the Post describes how
"more than $12 million in donations was funneled through two Tennessee corporations to the FreedomWorks super PAC after negotiations with Stephenson over a preelection gift of the same size....  The origin of the money has not previously been reported."
What the Post story didn't explain was the source of Stephenson's millions: Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), a private, for-profit company with five cancer hospitals scattered around the U.S.  Stephenson is the founder and chairman of CTCA.

For-profit hospitals present a big ethical problem, even when they provide proper care.  The problem is that motivation to increase profits may work against the interest of patients.  I don't want to debate that here, because CTCA has another, more serious problem.  Alongside standard, science-based cancer therapies, CTCA also offers an array of questionable, unscientific therapies, which it proudly labels as part of its "integrative cancer treatment."  CTCA advertises many such treatments, including:

  • Acupuncture
  • Acupressure
  • Chiropractic
  • Naturopathy 
  • Homeopathy
  • Mind-Body medicine (including Reiki and Qi Gong)

None of the treatments in this list has any scientific support showing that they provide a benefit to cancer patients.  Some of them carry a real risk of harm, as I've written about previously.  Acupuncture carries a risk of infection and chiropractic treatment has a risk of stroke - very small risks, admittedly, but no risk is acceptable when the benefit is nonexistent.  (See Science-Based Medicine for a summary of the science behind these and other alternative therapies.)

CTCA makes multiple unsupported, unscientific claims for its alternative treatments, such as:


These are just a few examples. These claims, and CTCA's marketing of the therapies involved, present a huge ethical problem.  Cancer patients are facing some of the most difficult decisions in their lives, often while suffering through painful treatments, not to mention the fear that their cancer will kill them.  When a cancer hospital offers an "integrative" treatment with the promise that it may help, the patient is highly likely to try it, regardless of the cost.  These are extremely vulnerable patients, and CTCA is taking advantage of them to sell ineffective therapies.  CTCA and its owners, including Richard Stephenson, are profiting from their unsuspecting patients.

Offering treatments that are little more than snake oil to cancer patients is ethically indefensible.  Believers in acupuncture, naturopathy, Reiki, and homeopathy will argue that they are not unethical, because the treatments work.  This argument, though, flies in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Those who argue that these therapies really work only demonstrate that they are unqualified to offer medical care.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America presents a very welcoming, positive picture of itself through its website, and much of what it describes is accurate.  However, its errors of omission are huge: nowhere does its website say that CTCA is a for-profit center, nor does it tell you that its founder is a major donor to right-wing political organizations.  And most critically for patients, CTCA offers a palette of pseudoscientific treatments, making medical claims that are not supported by any evidence and that in some cases violate basic principles of physiology and biology - although the website claims that its integrative treatments are "scientifically-based supportive therapies."

Let's put aside the right-wing propensities of its owners and simply focus on the science and the ethics of CTCA's "integrative" therapies.  Even if the treatments were free, there is no justification for offering treatments based on pseudoscience.  In the context of a for-profit hospital, where every treatment provided adds to the bottom line, the practice of pushing illegitimate treatments onto cancer patients is even more reprehensible.

[Note: the publisher of Forbes magazine, Steve Forbes, is a board member for Freedom Works.  In case it's not obvious, I don't speak for Forbes and they don't endorse the content of my blog, which appears both here and on the Forbes site.]
[Note 2: for a more detailed, critical look at some of CTCA's offerings and its claims, see this post by Orac at Respectful Insolence from mid-2010.]

8 comments:

  1. The post's online story does say Stephenson founded the Cancer Treatment Centers of America:
    "... Stephenson, the founder of the for-profit Cancer Treatment Centers of America and a director on the FreedomWorks board ..."

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    Replies
    1. Right - I worded that a bit too succinctly. I meant that the Post didn't explain anything about what CTCA is. It just mentions it in passing.

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    2. What is wrong with an individual selling therapies for different diseases using some dubious treatments?
      They are not forcing you to avail those treatments, and you have the freedom to go to any other hospital and try any other treatment. If there claims do not hold up in the public opinion then they would go out of business and would shut down automatically. Why should you judge them? Are we not citizens of a free country?

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    3. If only people were truly informed, in some ideal world, maybe so. But people aren't informed and many people simply don't have the knowledge to understand the claims - that's why they rely on experts. This is also why we regulate what drug companies can claim about their products. If we allow them to lie about the benefits, then by the time people realize the lie, a great deal of damage has been done. When it comes to alternative medicine, we don't regulate much of anything, and people trust authority figures (doctors, hospitals) to tell them the truth.

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  2. The CTCA commercials annoyed me enough--now this! It doesn’t surprise me, but little does these days. Oddly, Alt Med is the great area of agreement for right and left--ignorance (willful or innocent) knows no party affiliation.

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  3. Watching the late night TV commercials for CTCA which use the same few patients giving testimonials over and over again I knew there was something nefarious going on. This doesn't surprise me a bit. Quackademic medicine for profit.

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  4. I don't know if CTCA are good or bad. I've seen commercials, but commercials are, well, commercials.

    You state above:

    "For-profit hospitals present a big ethical problem, even when they provide proper care. The problem is that motivation to increase profits may work against the interest of patients."

    Do you feel that way about the pharmaceutical industry that make chemotherapy drugs?

    Should a for-profit company be allowed to sell a chemotherapy drug that has no evidence of increasing survival time?

    Couldn't you say that a drug company's desire "to increase profits may work against the interest of patients." ?

    --J

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    Replies
    1. yes, that's possible as well. I have written repeatedly about the pharmaceutical companies doing things like this - see my posts on The Vioxx Wall of Shame, for example, http://genome.fieldofscience.com/2008/05/vioxx-wall-of-shame.html.

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