Survey: 50 Million US Adults Have Donated to Crowd-Funding Campaigns for Medical Bills

As health care costs continue to rise in the United States, crowdfunding on websites such as GoFundMe is becoming increasingly common.

As health care costs continue to rise in the United States, crowdfunding on websites such as GoFundMe is becoming increasingly common. According to a survey from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, nearly 8 million adults in the United States have started a crowd-funding campaign either for themselves or for others.1

The survey used a nationally representative sample of 1020 US adults 18 years of age and over, of whom 79 completed the survey by phone and 941 completed it online.2

Of the respondents, 3% said they had started a campaign for their own expenses, 5% started a campaign for someone else's expenses, 20% said they had donated to a campaign, and 74% had not done any of these.2

Of those who had donated, 24% donated to the campaign of a relative, 46% to a friend, 14% to a coworker, 23% to an acquaintance, and 35% to a stranger.2 The number of participants who donated to strangers surprised the researchers, according to Mollie Hertel, MPP, a senior research scientist at NORC.

"We didn't expect that number to be quite so high (higher even than the percent who reported donating to a relative)," Hertel said in an email to Pharmacy Times.

Social media networks may be contributing to the rise of crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe, which is one of the most widely used. GoFundMe alone raises more than $650 million annually for more than 250,000 medical campaigns, according to their website.3 Recommendations on the site's "Top Fundraising Tips" page include leveraging social media, building a website or blog, and creating a hashtag.4

The NORC researchers said their survey helped shed light on the ways in which patients use crowdfunding.

"Now we see that social networks are enabling people to help Americans in need," said Susan Cahn, PhD, MHS, MA, a senior research scientist at NORC, in an email.

According to the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, the United States spends a disproportionate amount on health care: almost twice as much per person than other countries. Per capita in 2017, the United Kingdom spent $4246 per person compared with $10,224 in the United States.5

Not only are Americans turning to crowdfunding to tackle the rising costs, but the survey found that 36% believe the government has a great deal of responsibility to provide free or reduced-cost medical care for those who can't afford it.2

When asked which people or organizations had "a great deal" of responsibility, just 14% of respondents indicated family or friends have a great deal of responsibility. Another 20% said charities have a great deal of responsibility, 16% answered doctors, and 26% answered hospitals or clinics. Only 14% said the government's responsibility is "not much" or "none at all."2

"Although an estimated 5% of Americans started a campaign to pay for someone else's medical expenses, 26% think that family or friends should not assume much or any responsibility for helping when medical care is unaffordable," Cahn pointed out.

Although crowdfunding may help many Americans pay for the high cost of medical treatments, there are many concerns about potential fraud.

According to an article published in 2019 in The New Yorker, GoFundMe says that less than a tenth of 1% of its campaigns are fraudulent, but skeptics believe that number may be higher. The website does not currently require medical confirmation from those fundraising for health care bills, and some have suggested that this could go a long way toward minimizing fraudulent fundraisers.6

This study represents the first time that researchers at NORC have investigated the prevalence of crowdfunding, who Americans are donating to, and who is responsible for paying for health care, Hertel said. Although the study did not explore ongoing trends or the future of crowdfunding, Hertel said they have plans to do additional research into the future of crowdfunding websites and donations.

REFERENCES

  • Millions of Americans Donate through Crowdfunding Sites to Help Others Pay for Medical Bills [news release]. Chicago, IL; February 19, 2020. NORC website; https://www.norc.org/NewsEventsPublications/PressReleases/Pages/millions-of-americans-donate-through-crowdfunding-sites-to-help-others-pay-for-medical-bills.aspx. Accessed February 27, 2020.
  • NORC AmeriSpeak Omnibus Survey: Millions of Americans Donate through Crowdfunding Sites to Help Others Pay for Medical Bills. NORC at the University of Chicago; released February 19, 2020. https://www.norc.org/PDFs/ASonHealth/AmeriSpeak%20Omnibus%20-%20Crowdfunding.pdf. Accessed February 27, 2020.
  • Medical Fundraising, GoFundMe website. https://www.gofundme.com/start/medical-fundraising
  • Top Fundraising Tips, GoFundMe website. https://www.gofundme.com/c/fundraising-tips
  • Sawyer B, Cox C. How does health spending in the US compare to other countries? Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, published December 7, 2018. https://www.healthsystemtracker.org/chart-collection/health-spending-u-s-compare-countries/#item-start. Accessed February 27, 2020.
  • Heller N. The Hidden Cost of GoFundMe Health Care. The New Yorker; June 24, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/07/01/the-perverse-logic-of-gofundme-health-care. Accessed February 27, 2020.