Medical crowdfunding: an ethical way to seek treatment?
Medical crowdfunding has become a growing trend as an alternative means to afford expensive healthcare; The website GoFundMe alone has managed to raise over $4 billion in medical donations, but ethical questions have been raised in regards to what makes a successful campaign and the selection criteria of potential funders.
The use of social media and networking to raise funds has been a wide success; websites such as GofundMe, Fundly, Youcaring and more serve as platforms to allow anyone in need to set up a crowdfunding page. Recently, GoFundMe served as the crowdfunding platform in the case of 11 month-old Charlie Gard, who was born with mitochondrial depletion syndrome; a rare condition caused by a disruption in the mitochondria leading to muscle weakness and respiratory failure. The crowdfunding campaign, set up by Charlie’s parents, managed to raise over £1.3 million in just five months.
Crowdfunding provides benefits to both donors and users; it allows direct donations to users and establishes a connection between donors and users via updates to show the direct impact of their contributions. Of course, not all crowdfunding campaigns have benefitted from the same media coverage as Charlie and in February a study in Social Science & Medicine found that 90% of 200 crowdfunding campaigns on GoFundMe did not reach their donation goals in 2016. This has not always been the case as earlier campaigns from around 2010 saw more success.
However, as more people face unaffordable medical expenses, the use of crowdfunding has escalated; this flood of campaigns inevitably leaves potential donors in the difficult situation of having to choose which campaign they believe best deserves their money. Fundraisers are essentially left at the mercy of donors which raises concerns about the ‘fairness’ of crowdfunding; instead of providing medical funding based on genuine need and equity, funds are distributed based on appeal through a compelling narrative or the reach of one’s social network.
Dr Jeremy Snyder highlights these ethical issues in an article in the Hastings Center Report and claims that the success of campaigns can come down to the ”type of procedure being sought, creating the potential for discriminatory effects that are less likely in a system that distributes resources based on medical need.” GoFundMe already restricts funding for abortion and assisted suicide, but donors are also far less likely to fund socially stigmatised illnesses such as addiction or mental health problems. In addition to this, there is no reason to doubt that donors may discriminate against users, consciously or sub-consciously, based on other criteria that better suits their personal decision to donate.
There is no denying how helpful medical crowdfunding can be and there is no reason it should be avoided as a whole; but as the industry continues to grow it is important to address the issues in regards to equal access to healthcare and the potential systematic injustice from benefitting those with convincing stories, larger social networks and media connections. To reach a fairer solution, crowdfunding needs a better way of evaluating which users are in greater need of medical treatment as well as improved awareness from donors.