Author: Courtney Wolfe
It’s no secret that medical crowdfunding websites are flourishing, particularly in countries with limited or nonexistent universal healthcare systems, such as the United States and Canada. In fact, the latest statistical report on GoFundMe, a popular fundraising website based out of San Diego, California, states the site has raised nearly nine million dollars for individuals campaigning for money to cover the cost of medical treatments and procedures. The U.S. based crowdfunding site GivingForward claims it has raised significantly more money—$65 million U.S.D. from nearly 50,000 campaigns.
Crowdfunding websites allow individuals to post public requests for money for reasons such as travel plans, educational costs, bereavement support, business ventures, and many others. The most common reason for requesting money, however, is to cover expenses related to medical care. Crowdfunding campaigns for medical care often include financial requests for other factors related to medical treatment, such as help with travel expenses for patients and their families, compensation for time away from work, and trust funds for future medical expenses.
While medical fundraising campaigns can provide lucrative financial assistance for patients in need, they also generate concern over the ethics of soliciting money online from strangers.
Fraud and Misinformation
While nearly all crowdfunding sites state in their terms of service that users are not to mislead or misinform the public, there have been numerous cases of deception and outright fraud on behalf of some users. For example, in 2014, a woman from Iowa, U.S., duped strangers into paying thousands of dollars for her daughter’s cancer treatments through a GoFundMe campaign. The child was found to be completely healthy. In another case, a Canadian woman stole the identity of a local teenager battling cancer and created a crowdfunding campaign to raises funds for the teenager’s medical costs. The teenager whom the woman was pretending to be was in fact legitimately sick with cancer, but the woman used the donations she fraudulently collected to pay her personal expenses.
While not the same as outright fraud, the procuration of sensationalism is also an ethical concern of medical crowdfunding. The amount of competition is quite high in the medical crowdfunding arena, and in order to stand out from the crowd and receive donations, users often sensationalize or heavily embellish their stories. The very nature of these websites promotes the solicitation of money from strangers, who without the aid of the Internet, would not be privy to the health plights of the average medical crowdfunding user. For this reason, users are encouraged to attract attention to themselves by using language that generates ‘empathy’ from potential donors and that ‘inspires’ people viewing their campaign to donate money. Again, while the terms of service for most medical crowdfunding sites forbids users to post misleading information, many people still feel the suggestion that campaign success is based on overemphasis and embellishment too closely resembles sensationalism, deceit, and fabrication.
Among legitimate medical crowdfunding campaigns, equality is not known to be a primary factor in determining who receives money for their medical care and who does not, as solicited funds are largely distributed according to public appeal. For example, crowdfunding campaigns that receive press coverage, or those that are linked to a well-known event, such as the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2015, are significantly more likely to receive donations than other, lesser known medical campaigns. The luck of having a campaign featured in the media as a human interest piece also influences the amount of donations one is likely to receive. In short, medical crowdfunding users who have a uniquely sympathetic story to tell, have connections to the media, or are particularly photogenic or otherwise appealing are more likely to receive donations.
Despite the potential ethical issues that arise from medical crowdfunding sites, many uninsured and under-insured individuals feel the lack of affordable medical care is a far greater injustice. For many, medical crowdfunding is a symptom of, rather than a solution to, a subpar health system that, in essence, is the motivating factor behind the popularity of crowdfunding sites for necessary medical services. Until the inequities of an inept healthcare system are sufficiently addressed, millions of people will continue to turn to medical crowdfunding sites to fill in the gaps—and may the best, most sympathetic, and most attractive users succeed in curating the donations they need.