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Can Medical Crowdfunding Address Patient Financial Responsibility?

Medical crowdfunding hold some promise for addressing patient financial responsibility, but it also indicates needed industry overhaul, experts say.

patient financial responsibility

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- As patient financial responsibility continues to grow, healthcare consumers are looking for ways to pay for their medical bills. In that pursuit, medical crowdfunding has emerged.

Medical crowdfunding is the practice of collecting donations from family, friends, or even strangers to help pay for a medical procedure.

There are multiple platforms on which patients can host a medical crowdfunding endeavor. Websites such as GoFundMe are common for medical crowdfunding, although it should be noted that GoFundMe also hosts crowdfunding pages for other needs.

There are also websites specifically targeted at medical crowdfunding, such as the website YouCaring, although many of these websites are also under the GoFundMe umbrella.

The prevalence of medical crowdfunding has grown in recent years, especially as patients bear more financial responsibility for their medical bills. A March 2018 report from TransUnion Healthcare found that patient financial responsibility has rose by 11 percent since the year prior, likely because of overall increasing healthcare costs.

READ MORE: Patient Financial Struggles Suggest Need for Better Payment Plans

Patient worry about healthcare finances is also growing, research shows. A separate survey from patient advocacy group Consumers for Quality Care (CQC) found that 85 percent of patients are concerned about their ability to afford their medical treatments.

As the healthcare industry sees higher out-of-pocket patient costs, it is likewise seeing fewer patients accessing healthcare. But in some cases, medical treatments are unavoidable. In these cases, patients are using medical crowdfunding to curb some of the costs for a treatment.

According to a 2018 statement to Minnesota Public Radio, nearly one in three GoFundMe projects are fundraising for medical expenses. Medical fundraising pages bring in more money than any other category on GoFundMe, according to CEO Rob Solomon.

“In the old paradigm you would give $20 to somebody who needed help,” Solomon said. “In the new paradigm, you'll give $20, you'll share that and that could turn into 10, 20, 50 or 100 people doing that. So, the $20 could turn in hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.”

But with the concept of medical crowdfunding come a number of questions. Is medical crowdfunding truly the best way to handle high healthcare costs? What are the ethical issues of sharing one’s healthcare issues on a public fundraising platform?

Crowdfunding closes care access gaps, raises industry reform questions

READ MORE: Health Payer Coverage Access Cuts Patient Financial Strains

The question of medical crowdfunding has sparked debate throughout the entire healthcare industry. A successfully crowdfunded medical procedure could be the difference between life and death for some patients with serious illness. Crowdfunding could also fill in gaps where health insurance did not provide coverage.

Data from 2014 found that medical crowdfunding was tied to the decrease of medical bankruptcies in the US, with bankruptcy rates going down by 3.7 percent.

Additionally, medical crowdfunding has helped connect individual patients with procedures that they otherwise would not have had access to due to financial limitations. This is especially salient among patients with rare conditions, researchers have stated.

“Organizers of crowdfunding campaigns use their online connections and offline activities to promote their campaigns,” explained a group of researchers in a Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) article. “Crowdfunding may help support patients in need of DNA sequencing by providing access to a test that might uncover the cause of their disease and potentially lead to a viable clinical treatment.”

But medical crowdfunding also has some negative connotations, specifically as it relates to the healthcare marketplace at large. Although medical crowdfunding could connect individual patients to otherwise unattainable care, there are still larger industry issues experts must address.

READ MORE: Top Strategies for Collecting Patient Financial Responsibility

“Policy makers in countries with insurance gaps and inadequate universal health care coverage must realize that health-related crowdfunding is often a symptom of gaps in health policy,” wrote another group of researchers in a Social Science & Medicine article.

“Individuals crowdfund their medical expenses because health insurance coverage in their country is incomplete,” the researchers continued. “It seems impractical to patch all these gaps in access to financing using crowdfunding… While altruistic crowdfunding partially fills this medical insurance gap, it should not be thought of as a practical method for mitigating user charges and attaining universal health coverage in any country, particularly developing countries.”

Instead, healthcare experts must look at larger industry forces that shape out-of-pocket patient costs to address patient care access issues, the researchers contended.

Crowdfund pages call into question ethics issues

Industry experts are likewise grappling with questions about presenting a medical issue on a healthcare crowdfunding platform. Specifically, about what type of information must be disclosed on these fundraising pages.

In many cases, medical crowdfunding centers on extremely rare or developing medical treatments. In these cases, some experts assert that it may be unethical to ask for donations without fully disclosing the experimental nature of a treatment.

For example, an analysis of crowdfunding campaigns for unproven stem cell-based treatments showed that campaign hosts did not disclose enough information about the treatments.

“Crowdfunding campaigns for unproven stem cell–based interventions underemphasize risks and exaggerate the efficacy of these interventions,” wrote a group of researchers in a 2018 research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). “These findings suggest that medical crowdfunding campaigns convey potentially misleading messages about stem cell–based interventions. These claims may be especially powerful when embedded within compelling personal narratives.”

Medical professionals treating a patient hosting a medical crowdfunding project should monitor the patient’s webpage to ensure the page displays accurate information. However, more research is needed to fully understand how providers can interact with patients hosting medical crowdfunding pages.

Medical crowdfunding for research shows promise

Although medical crowdfunding for individual treatment access may raise some questions, fundraising for research groups shows more promise, the researchers wrote in the Social Science & Medicine article.

“Crowdfunding offers the possibility of much needed access to funding for scientists that can make important contributions to often-neglected medical research,” the researchers said. “Valuable non-profit health programs are additionally benefiting from new financing driven by crowdfunding.”

Crowdfunding for scientific research may be more transparent about the experimental nature of a certain endeavor.

However, using online fundraising websites for scientific research is not immune to concern. Specifically, the Social Science & Research authors said needing public fundraising is another symptom of an underfunded healthcare and scientific industry.

Going forward, medical crowdfunding could offer an individual fix to a medical cost issue. However, questions remain about the deeper issues of high patient financial responsibility and the affordability of healthcare and healthcare innovation.

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