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.

Heilpraktiker regularly cite anecdotal stories of (former) cancer patients who are still alive as if it were clear proof their treatments work, when in fact, there are several other possible explanations. ‘The biological variability of the disease, a mistake on the doctors’ part in estimating prognosis (always a tricky and inexact art), or a better response than expected to previous treatment with conventional medicine’ are often the real causes, Gorski writes. But these are overlooked in such unreliable testimonials, that many media present to the public – often with uncritical headlines.
The British press is also fond of criticising the National Health Service (NHS) for being unwilling to pay for expensive unproven therapies in Germany, whilst praising citizens who give up life savings and sell possessions to try and cover the costs on their own, thus encouraging desperate patients to potentially pointlessly financially ruin themselves.

Gahan went to the Hallwang Clinic in Germany.

Gorski examines which treatments Gahan received at Hallwang, and whether it’s likely she is or will be cured: ‘Sadly, almost certainly not. (…) After £300,000 of experimental drugs mixed with pure quackery, Gahan has had a respectable partial clinical response (…) but the most likely outcome will still be recurrence and death.’ Not enough time has passed to determine whether she will survive her cancer, but by now the media have already presented her story as a success. Which is extremely troubling, he explains, because ‘as far as we can tell, no systematic record of how well these patients do and how long they survive is kept, or, if such records are kept, they are kept secret.’

After further analysis, he concludes: ‘Clinics like Hallwang (…) almost certainly don’t work any better than conventional medicine. (…) Publishing their true results would be a threat to their ability to charge outrageous sums of money to patients like Pauline Gahan.’