The Challenges of Medical Crowdfunding

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Medical crowdfunding campaigns are often viewed as helpful and heartwarming: they give people in desperate situations the opportunity to afford the medical care they need, and it’s touching how people will band together to help others, sometimes complete strangers. And while both of those things are true, there are also a lot of problems inherent in crowdfunding medical care.

A healthy market

The crowdfunding market may be relatively young, but it’s already huge. It was valued at nearly $100 billion in 2018 and is expected to grow by 15% during 2020. Crowdfunding has done a lot of good for a lot of people – aside from personal campaigns for healthcare and other issues, it’s enabled countless projects that may not have been able to get off the ground without it. It lowers barriers for marginalized groups, allowing people to launch projects without relying on publishers and other companies that tend to pick up certain types of works and ignore others. It also helps artists keep control over their works.

While Kickstarter is one of the largest and most well-known crowdfunding platforms, it doesn’t allow personal funding projects, which makes GoFundMe the top site for medical crowdfunding and other causes. Since the company was founded in 2010, people have used it to raise over $5 billion for various causes across North America and Europe. While the site used to charge a %5 commission on money raised through its platform, it has since removed that fee and relies instead on voluntary tips from donors to keep things running. By 2018, roughly a third of all campaigns on GoFundMe were for medical fundraising, and the site was hosting over 250,000 of these campaigns per year.

Suggested reading: 10 Best Crowdfunding Sites in the World

Medical crowdfunding on platforms like GoFundMe has allowed countless people to access treatments they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford, improving and saving lives around the world. It also highlights serious gaps in various countries’ medical systems – one particular example being the United States. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has found that the US spends nearly twice as much per person on healthcare compared to other wealthy countries. It’s the highest spender on administrative costs and the second-lowest spender on long-term care, and its health outcomes are not any better than average – indeed, they’re frequently significantly below average. With a lack of universal healthcare and very high costs to individuals, crowdfunding for medical bills is very common in the country.

For a system that hundreds of thousands of people turn to for help with medical bills every year, healthcare crowdfunding has a number of issues. Not all of them are immediately obvious to the average person, especially if they haven’t been involved with running a campaign themselves.

Storytelling as a success factor

When appealing to complete strangers to donate towards your medical expenses, storytelling is an essential skill. Without a strong story, people will be less inclined to support a cause, no matter how worthy. Strong stories get shared, which brings more attention and money, which causes them to be shared more widely. Only 10% of medical crowdfunding campaigns typically meet their goals, and getting a cause in front of enough eyes is one of the roadblocks.

Storytelling is even more challenging for those with more complex or chronic health problems. It’s easier to tell a story about a discrete incident or a problem that can be fixed with one or two treatments. There’s a specific target to hit and then the problem will be solved. For those facing medical issues without a clear “fix,” it can be difficult to frame their story in a way that shows the benefits that people’s donations will bring. Those without obviously “solvable” problems have a lower success rate when crowdfunding medical care.

The struggle to reach a wide audience is often made more challenging by the design of crowdfunding platforms themselves. They tend to highlight campaigns that are already doing well – those with strong stories and strong support. Typically, after a campaign achieves about a third of its funding goal, it has an 80% chance of success, so fundraisers that are featured as “trending” get a boost that they might have been able to get by without, while those that are struggling don’t. Trending campaigns also get shared more widely on social media, extending their reach further. The system is biased in favor of people that are already doing well, and doesn’t have good structures in place to boost those who aren’t, no matter how deserving they might be.

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The politics of healthcare

The word “deserving” brings up another issue: by relying on crowdfunding for medical bills, we’re putting the decision on who “deserves” healthcare into the hands of individuals. Unlike a government-run system (or at least, the way a government-run system should operate), all manner of biases can impact whether an individual receives funding for their treatment. People make decisions based on a number of factors: the type of health problem being funded (is it stigmatized, such as something related to sexual or reproductive health?); the individual’s political beliefs, race, or sexual orientation; or a lifestyle that may have contributed to the health problem are all examples of this. These factors can be roadblocks to getting funding for treatment, and while these problems are sadly often present in institutionalized healthcare as well, they are exacerbated when it comes to medical crowdfunding.

Suggested reading: Health and Wellness Trends to Look Out For in 2020

The issue of scams

Scams are another problem on crowdfunding platforms. While GoFundMe says that less than 0.1% of campaigns on its site are frauds, some believe the number is actually much higher. Fraudulent campaigns hurt not only the people who donate to them, but everyone else trying to raise money for their own causes, as people become more skeptical and wary of who they decide to give their money to.

This brings up the question of fact checking and verification. While GoFundMe has introduced payout verifications and has hired some people with experience detecting fraud, it doesn’t check every campaign that goes live on its site. And as important as it is to detect and remove scams, it’s challenging to do without violating people’s privacy. Requiring medical information to prove that someone has genuine need for help is invasive, and many people are wary of providing sensitive medical documentation to a corporation such as a crowdfunding site. It is therefore a question of balancing the need for privacy with the need to protect donors.

Another type of scam is also creating problems: treatments not backed by research or certified by medical organizations. While it is the patient’s right to choose what treatments they use, and the backers’ right to choose which campaigns to fund, ultimately this results in more money going to unproven treatments that at best are ineffective, and at worst harmful to the patient’s health.

Campaign drain

Finally, running a campaign takes a lot of time and energy – unless you’re very lucky, you can’t just set one up and wait for results. It’s necessary to spread the word as much as possible, as well as answering questions and taking care of other administrative work. An entire industry has sprung up around promoting crowdfunding campaigns.

The result here is that thousands and thousands of people devote time, energy, and money to running medical crowdfunding campaigns that ultimately fail, leaving them with either insufficient funds to pay for the treatment they need, or no funds whatsoever, depending on the type of campaign that was run. This is time that could have been spent on other things such as palliative care or being with family members and friends. But it’s a hard decision to choose that over the potential to raise enough money for a necessary treatment.

None of the above is to say that medical crowdfunding is by nature a bad thing. It has allowed many individuals and families to get help that they otherwise had no hope of obtaining. It’s also worth noting that even failed campaigns can provide some benefits: connections with and support from friends, family, and strangers can bring emotional benefits if nothing else. But it has many drawbacks, especially – but not exclusively – for members of marginalized groups. Access to treatment is unequal, and some types of treatments are easier to fund than others. It’s no replacement for a solid healthcare structure, either in the US or anywhere else.

Learn more about the global crowdfunding market with Technavio’s research report
  • Detailed information on factors that will accelerate the growth of the crowdfunding market during the next five years
  • Precise estimation of the global crowdfunding market size and its contribution to the parent market
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  • Growth of the crowdfunding industry across the Americas, APAC, and EMEA
  • A thorough analysis of the market’s competitive landscape and detailed information on several vendors
  • Comprehensive details on the factors that will challenge the growth of crowdfunding companies