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Crowdfunding for Medical Bills Not a Cure-all

Crowdfunding campaigns to pay for medical costs have become a booming industry in recent years, with sites like GoFundMe raising billions of dollars for Americans struggling to pay medical bills. But most of those campaigns do not reach their financial goals, according to new research from the University of Washington (UW).

A study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine reviewed 200 GoFundMe campaigns for healthcare expenses from 2016 and found that 90 percent of them did not reach their financial goal, netting just 40 percent of their goal on average. About 10 percent of campaigns raised less than $100.

Researchers also found that crowdfunding usage reflects inequities in access to healthcare across the United States. Campaigns to pay for healthcare costs were more likely to come from states that rejected Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. While 39 percent of the U.S. population lives in those states, 54 percent of the randomly sampled campaigns came from them.

The study found that crowdfunding platforms give an advantage to users with skills in self-marketing, social media, and video production. People with the most complicated and least-hopeful medical problems tend to have the hardest time raising funds.

In short, the researchers say, the rise of medical crowdfunding reflects-and potentially worsens-inequities already at play.

“We found that a good campaign has to do with solvable problems and so-called good investments,” said co-author Nora Kenworthy, PhD. “Those are not the same values that an equitable health system is based on.”

The study is one of the first in-depth examinations of the rise of crowdfunding for medical costs on sites like YouCaring, GiveForward, Fundly, and GoFundMe.

Digital platforms can present barriers for many groups of people-the elderly, those with lower education levels, and those in poverty-who bear a disproportionate burden of chronic health conditions and tend to carry more medical debt. Very few campaigns go viral beyond one’s personal network, which penalizes those who don’t have wealthy connections.

It’s easier to fundraise for a single need, the researchers say, rather than a tangle of medical costs, housing payments, utility bills, and car repairs-exactly the kinds of needs that pile up for those living in poverty.

The researchers examined public health impacts as well as the privacy concerns and emotional demands of forcing people to go online to ask for help for medical bills. They also studied the rhetoric people use to demonstrate their deservingness.

“People say ‘I wish I didn’t have to do this. I’m so embarrassed,'” said co-author Lauren Berliner, PhD. “They use disclaimers: ‘I wouldn’t do this unless I had nowhere else to turn.'”

The study found that it was not necessarily the most tragic stories that drew the most support, but the ones that presented a solvable need and most successfully employed memes, hashtags, images, and other timely social media skills.

A for-profit company, GoFundMe charges a 7.9 percent fee on donations. Using crowdfunding can also jeopardize those receiving public benefits based on income, such as Medicaid, since any funds raised can qualify as income.

“A campaign’s success can depend on how much it divulges of a person’s health history, financial situation, and even genetic makeup, information that will live online long after the fundraising ends,” they write.

“Relying on these sites changes how we perceive the problem,” said Kenworthy. “It masks a more open conversation we could be having about the inequities of our health system.”

This article was adapted from information provided by UW.

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