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THE GUIDE IN BRIEF

How crowdfunding for healthcare became the new normal

JAMES DAW for Quartz
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

💡The Big Idea

Medical crowdfunding seeks to expand access to healthcare and lessen its financial burden. Instead, it is exacerbating the inequality it seeks to solve. Here’s the TLDR on our latest member-exclusive field guide on medical crowdfunding.


🤔Here’s Why

1️⃣ Medical crowdfunding lies at the nexus of a broken health system, social media, and startup culture.

2️⃣ It has become a go-to way to ease the financial burden of healthcare in the US, but also globally.

3️⃣ In Italy, for instance, it’s a significant part of the coronavirus response, with associated campaigns breaking records.

4️⃣ While the intention is noble, people tend to donate to those they identify with the most.

5️⃣ Crowdfunding rewards perceived worthiness rather than necessity, which exacerbates social inequalities.


📝 The Details

1️⃣ Medical crowdfunding lies at the nexus of a broken health system, social media, and startup culture.

Medical crowdfunding is fast, effective, personal, and offers an opportunity to give tangible help with a simple click. And so in the span of a few years, it has become ubiquitous, a routine source of extra support that people turn to in times of financial need. Since 2009, when crowdfunding platforms first began to crop up on the internet, users have launched millions of campaigns. In the US in particular, crowdfunding has become a normalized way to pay for healthcare treatment. A survey published in 2019 by the University of Chicago estimated that about 8 million American adults have started campaigns to pay their medical expenses. About 50 million have donated to them.

2️⃣ It has become a go-to way to ease the financial burden of healthcare in the US, but also globally.

In the US, crowdfunding is a crutch to support people who are facing skyrocketing healthcare costs, and are uninsured or underinsured.  Likewise, in India, citizens are under-insured, public healthcare schemes are insufficient, and private medical facilities are expensive. In the gaping chasm between India’s private and public healthcare systems, medical crowdfunding platforms like Milaap, Ketto, and ImpactGuru have become a crucial bridge.

3️⃣ In Italy, crowdfunding is a significant part of the coronavirus response, and campaigns are breaking records.

As the coronavirus pandemic spread across Italy, many crowdfunding campaigns cropped up, including on GoFundMe. The platform, which lets users raise and donate money for a range of causes, now lists hundreds of campaigns related to the coronavirus. Overwhelmingly, Italian campaigns aren’t launched to pay for medical expenses associated with the disease—Italy offers government-funded universal health coverage—but to support existing institutions fighting the epidemic. The most successful campaign so far was to raise money to open a new intensive care unit in Milan’s San Raffaele hospital. It has raised close to €4.5 million (almost $5 million). No medical crowdfunding campaign has ever raised more, and it’s a case study in both the promise and pitfalls of medical crowdfunding.

4️⃣ While the intention is noble, people tend to donate to those they identify with the most.

While crowdfunding can seem like a possible third way of financing healthcare, it’s more like a poorly functioning bandaid. The campaigns are successful because they combine a call to action, a moral driver, and visible behavior of peers. But those same factors reinforce inequality, because people tend to give to—and want to match the good deeds of—those like themselves.

5️⃣ Crowdfunding rewards perceived worthiness rather than necessity, which exacerbates social inequalities.

Successful medical crowdfunding campaigns are about storytelling. Unfortunately, some stories are more compelling to donors than others. Conditions that can be treated immediately are more likely to get funding than chronic care, for example, because people want to fund “the solution.” Although for some people crowdfunding is an effective way to raise much-needed funds, it can also be exhausting to constantly be selling your story and proving you’re worth a donation. “It’s unhealthy for us as a society that we expect people in need to perform for us like that,” says technology researcher and writer Alexandra Samuel.