Reviewing alternative cancer clinics in Germany

David Gorski speaking at TAM 2012. (Brian Engler CC-BY-SA 3.0).

After a recent series of controversies surrouding German cancer clinics, in which so-called Heilpraktiker (alternative therapists such as Klaus Ross who require fewer qualifications than regular physicians) are allowed to perform invasive treatments, American oncologist David Gorski (Orac) of Science-Based Medicine has extensively studied this phenomenon and published his results.

The conclusions are damning: although some ‘legitimate’ experimental drugs (like 3-BP or DCA) that might have promising future applications are being tested in these clinics, ‘German clinics often charge enormous sums of money for treatments that range from the unproven to the dubious to pure quackery’, whilst offering false hope to desperate patients around Europe. He recounts the story of British stomach cancer patient Pauline Gahan, who has put her faith and fortunes (£300,000; some of it raised publicly) in the Hallwang Clinic in Dornstetten.

And the Golden Board 2016 goes to…!

The German-speaking skeptical society GWUP nominated three people/institutions for “the most bizarre, most outrageous, brashest pseudoscientific nonsense contribution” in Germany, Austria and Switzerland of 2016: Ryke Geerd Hamer (founder of the dangerous Germanische Neue Medizin), Roland Düringer (comedian turned politician who spreads lots of conspiracy theories) and Krebszentrum Brüggen-Bracht (alternative cancer clinic of Heilpraktiker Klaus Ross). The award is called the ‘Golden Board in Front of the Face’, to rebuke purveyors of pseudoscience who don’t see the harm they’re doing.

The award ceremony was held on 11 October in Vienna, co-organised by the Viennese regional GWUP group Society for Critical Thinking (Gesellschaft für kritisches Denken) and the Freethinkers League of Austria (Freidenkerbund Österreich). A side-event was held in Hamburg Skeptics in the Pub with a livestream of the Viennese ceremony.

Nominees for the Golden Board 2016

This year’s nominees for the GWUP’s ironic award Goldenes Brett vorm
Kopf (‘Golden Board in Front of the Face’) are:

  • Ryke Geerd Hamer – founder of the dangerous Germanische Neue Medizin (Germanic New Medicine);
  • Roland Düringer – a comedian who has entered politics and spreads all kinds of conspiracy theories;
  • Krebszentrum Brüggen-Bracht – the alternative cancer clinic of Heilpraktiker Klaus Ross, where at least three patients died recently after receiving fatal injections that have stirred up controversy.

The website receives the Golden Board Lifetime Achievement Award (Goldenes Brett fürs Lebenswerk).

The annually awarded Golden Board honours “the most bizarre, most outrageous, brashest pseudoscientific nonsense contribution of the year in German-speaking countries.” This year’s winner will be presented on 11 October in Vienna, Austria.

More information in GermanSamenvatting in het Nederlands

Should ‘Heilpraktiker’ be outlawed?

A syringe for injections (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Dutch TV show EenVandaag examined the Heilpraktiker system in Germany, where about 43,000 ‘healers’ are allowed to conduct invasive irregular treatments on patients, without being trained physicians. The recent controversy surrounding Krauss Ross’ alternative cancer clinic, which was closed after several patients received fatal injections, has stirred up debate on whether the system should be changed, or even downright abolished. In the Netherlands, such treatments are prohibited, leading some Dutch patients to try their luck across the border, where regulations are less strict, and thus the treatments more dangerous.

Physician Cees Renckens, spokesperson for the Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij (Dutch Society against Quackery), is in favour of expelling the Heilpraktiker from the ranks of legal professions. The interviewer responded by saying that some would argue ‘that things go wrong in the regular medical world all the time, too; that wouldn’t make you advocate for abolishing regular medicine either, would it?’ Renckens replied: ‘No, but in normal medicine, in hospitals, you can at least recover, because most treatments actually work. And if there is no benefit whatsoever [in a treatment], any risk, any complication, is unacceptable.’

‘Alternative cancer treatments waste of precious time’

Dutch newspaper Trouw featured an article critical of alternative cancer therapies today, which highlights that unreliable anecdotal stories are easily found online, and omit the dark side of unproven treatments. It refers to a case in Skepter (magazine of Stichting Skepsis) where a woman, Willeke, died of breastcancer after having visited multiple naturopaths, who all claimed her worsening condition proved the treatments were working.

Frits van Dam at the 2014 VtdK symposium. (Vera de Kok CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Frits van Dam, secretary of the Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij (VtdK, Dutch Society against Quackery), points out that many of these treatments (Trouw mentions faith healing, bioresonance, mistletoe, an exotic worm called Fasciolopsis buskii, the Moerman and Houtsmuller diets, herbal supplements etc.) may often just be ineffective and not harmful in themselves. But they do waste cancer patients’ precious time (and money), in which they could have gotten a regular treatment, recovered and survived. Many alternative treatments may however be even more dangerous than the cancer itself, as evidenced by patients who died at the hands of Tullio Simoncini’s salt solutions or Klaus Ross’ glucose injections.