Is medical crowdfunding “healthy”?

Note: This post originally posted on May 16, 2013, at:

It has been re-posted here with the author’s permission. Please note the original publication date of May 16, 2013.


For me, it’s hard to believe it’s been six years since the release of Michael Moore’s “Sicko“.  This film was the beginning of my understanding of how much trouble the US medical system was really in.  Just one year prior, I’d had my own experience of leaving a hospital because I was uninsured (fortunately my injury was relatively minor).  Shortly thereafter, while studying abroad at Ritsumeikan University, I had the opportunity to take a course in public health.  With the assistance of the Australian prof and classmates from around the world sharing their experiences, I was able to really dig into the theory behind what health means and how different nations attempt to attain and maintain it.  Over the years, I’ve engaged directly with a broad spectrum of public health methodologies, but I continue to be mystified by healthcare in the US.

Many of us are all too familiar with the tumultuous nature of the US medical system in recent years.  From the dramatic rise in costs over the past 30 years, to the reforms of the Affordable Care Act and the many controversies therein, the US is working hard to re-envision insurance schemes and cost transparency–with mixed results.  Within this vast galaxy of issues, there is one that has stood out to me recently: medical cost crowdfunding.

After the devastating terrorist attack at 2013′s Boston Marathon, a friend of one of the victims began collecting donations to help pay for his hospital bills.  Using a site called GoFundMe, the man raised over $100,000 USD in donations at the time of publication of this CBS article.  GoFundMe is just one of many crowdfunding sites, which allow users to chip in any amount they so choose.  Some campaigns offer incentives for certain amounts, others just ask for folks to give what they can.  Any amount helps in a crowdfunding campaign.  Campaigns for medical expenses of/recovery for Boston bombing victims alone have raised over $3 million from over 45,000 individual donors in the past 31 days.  The general section of “Medical, Illness & Healing” on GoFundMe is thriving and full of campaigns with goals large and small.

At its core, crowdfunding is an industry like any other.  Sites that offer crowdfunding services take anywhere from a “7 to 12 percent processing fee“–but it’s easy to forget the business aspect, when faced with such a personalized image of charitable giving.  People are turning to sites like GoFundMe as a last resort to escape medical fee related bankruptcy, the listed cause for over 60% of personal bankruptcies in the US in 2007 (Himmelstein, et. al 2009).  This is a dramatic increase from a rate of 8% in 1981 and 46.2% in 2001.

My ultimate curiosity is this: If people are willing to shell out $30 million USD in crowdfunding for those who need help with their medical needs, why is the concept of tax-funded, socialized healthcare so inconceivable in the US?  Is there too much of a disconnect between taxation and donation?  A general distrust of the capacity of the government to manage a healthcare system?  A continued faith in the capacity of the free market to provide affordable services?  Or is it just easier to hear from a friend or loved one of someone in need that they are indeed a good person, and they just need a little help?  At its heart, crowdfunding is just another piece in the puzzle that is US healthcare.