Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Between the cracks: Why there are so many medical GoFundMe pages, and what this means for the users

A smiling couple is huddled at the centre of gold and silver balloons, she is smiling brightly, the man – Justin – less so. The headline underneath the campaign reads “urgent: Justin needs help”.

Justin suffers from an aggressive form of brain cancer and his wife Nicky is hoping to raise the money needed for his immunotherapy. When you visit GoFundMe’s website, you’ll probably immediately meet the overwhelming number of campaigns like those of Justin and Nicky, dedicated to medical bills started on the website. The previous CEO of GoFundMe, Rob Solomon, said that one-third of all the GoFundMe donations go to medical fundraisers.

What is GoFundMe?

GoFundMe is an online crowdfunding platform that is not the only one of its kind. Crowdfunding has been around for a long time — from the Irish Loan Fund in the 1700s to the band Marillion crowdfunding their tour through their U.S. fanbase. Marillion then inspired the first online crowdfunding platform — ArtistShare, which allowed music to be fuelled by the fans.

From 2008 to 2010, a new set of crowdfunding platforms came to the market — IndiGogo, Kickstarter, and GoFundMe. In this line-up, GoFundMe looks at “[empowering]both individuals and nonprofits to turn compassion into action”, currently standing as the “largest social fundraising platform”.

Rob Solomon said that GoFundMe was born from the realisation that many people “fall through the cracks”. “ They think the government is there to help them, NGO’s are there to help them — and that should be the way — but oftentimes people have nowhere else to turn and we find that communities of people come together to help each other help.”

Like GoFundMe’s website says: “Starting is easy”. Simply navigate to the “start new campaign” button and fill out some basic information about what you want to campaign for and you are set.

GoFundMe’s categories

The Medical Pages

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

GoFundMe’s role in funding medical bills has brought help to many families and individuals who needed it and it has also been one of the main reasons the platform had grown to what it is today. According to GoFundMe’s website — they are the leader in online medical fundraising. With more than 250,000 medical fundraisers every year, raising over $500 million. One testimony on the website writes:

“This website rocks! I raised close to $10,000 in less than 48 hours for my nephew’s medical needs, and your customer service was so prompt and helpful.” (Monica S. — raised $16.000)

A U.S. National Opinion Research Centre (NORC) report wrote that more than 8 million Americans started campaigns to cover routine medical care and major surgeries.

The average cost of hospital stays for cancer patients in 2015 was $31,390, according to government figures — about half that year’s median household income. The most common form of childhood cancer costs on average $292,000 to treat, says St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. This is unsurprising given that the average cost of healthcare is cited to be one of the leading reasons for individual bankruptcy.

Medical Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy caused by medical bills is difficult to quantify exactly since people usually aren’t asked to state the reason for bankruptcy, but there are estimates. Looking at the US for example we have the following estimates:

What we do know is that the rate of uninsured individuals has never been lower. Nearly 13.7% of adults in the U.S. report that they are uninsured. According to Gallup’s report on individuals without health insurance, about seven million more adults are without health insurance since 2016. This impacts especially women, primarily “those living in households with annual incomes of less than $48,000 per year, and young adults under the age of 35”.

Graph of percentage of U.S. adults without Health Insurance 2008–2018
Percentage of U.S. Adults Without Health Insurance, 2008–2018. All rights belong to Gallup

Gallup suggests that these numbers come from different reasons. Like:

  1. The increased prices of insurance premiums in most American states for the most populated Affordable Care Act Insurance plans.
  2. Policy decisions, like the decrease in funding for the Affordable Care Act “navigators” that help consumers figure out health insurance.
  3. Political forces, especially the Republican pushback against Obamacare.

The Power of Storytelling

Funding medical bills through an online platform, with many people watching, can be straining on those behind the campaigns. One couple described it as mentally exhausting to the New Yorker and they are surely not the only ones who feel this way.

Organisers of campaigns can share frequent updates, photos, news, messages, anything to share with the people who are supporting. But to have support, you need to reach an audience first. With the sheer number of medical campaigns, it can be easy for these campaigns to disappear into the mass. Many are realising that the more heartbreaking the story, the more likely it is your campaign will be picked up in the algorithm.

The importance of storytelling has been highlighted throughout time. Melinda Gates said that stories “open[s] our hearts to a new place, which opens our minds, which often leads to action”. In the words of Tim Cook “stories can change the world”. In the case of GoFundMe, the power of a story can change someone’s world.

Some campaigns are even being approached by PR firms who offer to help optimise the campaigns to attract as many donations as possible. But engaging in the services of PR firms often costs money, money that many people that seek help on GoFundMe do not have.

The campaigns that go unseen

When scrolling down the array of medical campaigns on GoFundMe, you will quickly find the campaigns that are less successful at gathering views. Those campaigns haven't (yet) been picked up by virality.

GoFundMe, like many other platforms, uses an algorithm to sort the campaigns that we see on our screens. According to GQ, GoFundMe’s algorithm makes use of a so-called “recency bias”, meaning that successful fundraisers with lots of donations are shown to users first.

The fundraisers that often do not make the cut, are those on the collateral damages of healthcare bankruptcy. Those are the people who cannot afford their basic necessities because of the cost of healthcare. Talia Lavin in her article for GC calls this the “dark shadow of the viral success story”.

A statement from GoFundMe’s representative to Talia Lavin for GC said that “a crowdfunding platform can not and should not be a solution to complex, systemic problems that must be solved with meaningful public policy. We believe that affordable access to comprehensive health care is a right, and action must be taken at the local, state, and federal levels of government to make this a reality for all Americans. But in the meantime, we will continue to work hard to provide a place where Americans can help one another during times of need”.

GoFundMe’s “dark shadow” sheds light on what goes on behind the curtains of inadequate healthcare policies. Where people who are in need of basic or complex medical care are asked to look at creating a successful, viral, fundraiser to be able to afford their necessary healthcare.