Over the last few years there have been many promising therapies using stem cells to treat neurological and degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, MS, arthritis, and even nerve damage. These therapies are widely available globally, although there seems to be little medical consensus as to whether they work. Until the pandemic some patients who are not satisfied with their options here in Canada chose to travel to other countries like America, Mexico, Asia or India. There is less regulation or different approval processes in these countries meaning that more options are available to those who can afford to pay cash for them.
When they come home to Canada family doctors and specialists are often left to sort out any complications, difficulties, or requirements for further treatment. A recent study of American neurologists painted a disturbing picture of the results of stem cell tourism.
The report cited in arsTechnica reported that,
Nearly 90 percent of the doctors were treating patients with diseases that were currently incurable, and a similar percentage had been asked about stem cell therapies. About half the neurologists said that they had 15 or more patients ask them just within the past year. While the vast majority of patients were simply looking for additional information about the supposed therapies, a third were looking for the doctor to grant them permission to try one, emphasizing the importance of physicians limiting access to untested treatments.
Fortunately, two-thirds of the doctors warned their patients against trying one of these unproven therapies. Yet nearly two-thirds had one of their patients try an untested stem cell therapy—and another 20 percent of them had patients approach them only after the patients had already tried one. And those procedures weren't without complications. About a quarter of the doctors reported having a patient with complications from a procedure, ranging from stroke to hepatitis. There was no apparent pattern to the reports that suggest that any complications are more common than others, though.
Many neurologists feel completely prepared to advise their patients on the unproven procedures which most people are seeking out of desperation for a cure to what ails them. We know that to date NO stem cell therapies for neurological diseases have been proven to be effective yet this has not stopped clinics world wide from offering hope to those patients who have run out of other options.
The study points to the importance of patients asking their primary care givers for sound advice and being explained the options and risks of proven treatments. Doctors should be candid with patients about unproven therapies and the risks associated with them, and with medical tourism.