Crowdfunding Medical Bills

January 23, 2013

By Alan Regenberg


A story in USA Today notes that an estimated $2.8 billion was raised across all types of crowdfunding websites in 2012. The story focuses on how these websites are used by families and individuals facing large medical debts.


On the surface, this news seems reassuring. With names like ‘Human Tribe Project’ and ‘Give Forward’ these sites emphasize good things: charity, community, caring. But, the mere need for such giving to aid families with crushing medical expenses quickly overshadows these positive attributes.


In addition to worrying about how these schemes could leave those with the fewest resources at a disadvantage in competing for aid, I am also left wondering: is this really the sort of competition for charity that we want to foster?  Do we want individuals and families facing hardships, including illness and massive debts, to be encouraged into polishing and presenting their saddest stories for this sort of online version of ‘Queen For a Day’?


Serious medical conditions already require those afflicted to trade privacy in pursuit of care; patients are examined and treated, their medical records shared. These intrusions into privacy can be justified by their necessity and the direct benefit the patient receives. But, can we justify the self-exposure, driven by financial incentives, that these sites may present to desperate patients and their families?


I don’t actually blame the sites themselves so much as the health system that we are living within.  If all Americans were given access to decent medical care, protected from the crippling burden of massive costs, then these sorts of appeals would disappear from crowdfunding sites.


That said, I am cautiously hopeful that as the Affordable Care Act is implemented and improved, we can move past an era where access to healthcare is so very limited, and receiving that care can leave families with nearly-as-devastating debts that incentivize, in their wakes, unsavory options like competing for kindness online.



Alan Regenberg, MBe, is the Director of Outreach and Research Support at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He is currently developing and implementing strategies to use social media as a tool for broad public engagement around issues in bioethics. You can follow him  @bermaninstitute or, using his inside voice, @aregenberg.

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Alan Regenberg

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