Study: Medical Debt Crowdfunding Has ‘Potential to Exacerbate’ Inequities

We recently reported on the striking increase of individuals with medical bills who turn to crowdfunding as a potential financial source to avoid medical debt.

As Bloomberg reported: “Sites such as GoFundMe and GiveForward are poised for a wave of medical appeals if Trumpcare leaves millions uninsured, and even if it doesn’t.”

But a recent study raises a number of questions around not only the ethics of such an approach, but also the fairness.

The study, titled “Producing a worthy illness: Personal crowdfunding amidst financial crisis” was published by Social Science & Medicine. The report:

  • “Details how crowdfunding intertwines with conditions of austerity.”
  • “Finds that crowdfunding is particularly popular in states with less access to public insurance.”
  • “Argues that success in crowdfunding requires unique literacies.”
  • “Shows how crowdfunding reinforces austerity by eroding claims for social protection.”
  • “Reveals how crowdfunding has the potential to exacerbate social and health inequities.”

The authors note: “Successful crowdfunding requires that campaigners master medical and media literacies; as such, we argue that crowdfunding has the potential to deepen social and health inequities in the U.S. by promoting forms of individualized charity that rely on unequally-distributed literacies to demonstrate deservingness and worth. Crowdfunding narratives also distract from crises of healthcare funding and gaping holes in the social safety net by encouraging hyper-individualized accounts of suffering on media platforms where precarity is portrayed as the result of inadequate self-marketing, rather than the inevitable consequences of structural conditions of austerity.”

One of the authors, Nora Kenworthy, Assistant Professor of Nursing & Health Studies at UW Bothell, told the University of Washington Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities: “We found that a good campaign has to do with solvable problems and so-called good investment. Those are not the same values that an equitable health system is based on. These sites are being asked to fill in gaps in the system, but they’re only filling gaps for people who have solvable needs.”

Added Lauren Berliner, a media studies scholar and Assistant Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at UW Bothell: “People say ‘I wish I didn’t have to do this. I’m so embarrassed. They use disclaimers: ‘I wouldn’t do this unless I had nowhere else to turn.’”