British Columbia

GoFundMe and other crowdfunding medical campaigns pose ethical dilemma

Many people are turning to online crowdfunding to help pay their medical bills when the health-care system fails to cover the costs. But how ethical are these appeals?

Ethicist Jeremy Snyder says crowdfunding lacks transparency, only gives voice to a few people

Lynn Hume took selfie to post on her crowdfunding site while appealing for help as she underwent treatment for breast cancer. (Lynn Hume)

Online crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe and YouCaring are becoming a popular way to help pay unexpected medical bills when the health-care system doesn't cover the costs.

But what are the ethical considerations behind these appeals?

"I thought I'll give it a try. I didn't expect anything," said Lynn Hume, of Burnaby, B.C., who set up a crowdfunding campaign after she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer last year.

Speaking to CBC Radio B.C. Almanac's Michelle Eliot, Hume said she turned to the site GoFundMe, with the goal of raising $30,000 to help her through her treatment while she is unable to work.

"I set up my campaign, and then I waited. Nothing happened, and then everything started happening when I actually copied the link to my two sisters, and that's when they shared the link on their Facebook.

"They emailed it to their colleagues and their clients and all of a sudden all of these donations flooded in, and so I know I'm going to be OK now."

Hume said she's a private person and it was difficult to reach out for help. Now, she says, it's not just the financial donations that are helping her — she's also received moral support.

"It can make you cry. The amount of love, just the outpouring of support has been amazing … they're rooting for me."

Crowdfunding at risk of fraud

From an ethics perspective, on the surface, there's nothing wrong with crowdfunding for medical reasons, says Jeremy Snyder, a professor in the faculty of health sciences at Simon Fraser University.

"In principle it's not a bad thing. It's just another way for people who are looking for some help to raise money to get medical treatment or whatever else they might need," he told B.C. Almanac.

But he worries about how susceptible the system is to abuse. Fraud is always a possibility, he said, though he doesn't believe that's widespread.

Kyle McConkey's family set up a crowdfunding site to help pay for experimental but potentially life-saving leukemia treatment. An investigation was launched after someone else set up a mirror site using the same images to garner donations fraudulently. (Youcaring.com)

"What is a little bit more predominant is that donors might not understand what's being entailed around a medical procedure," he said.

He said this is often the case for experimental treatments, and donors may not realize that the procedure they're helping fund hasn't been fully tested.

"While it's totally reasonable for them to do that and try to seek help, people who are potential donors may not understand that it's an unproven treatment or may not have all the facts."

'I want to catch people's heart'

Hume said that when setting up her site, she carefully considered how her story was being told.

Jennifer Doucette made an emotional plea on YouTube to raise money to treat her anorexia. (YouTube)

"I sat down and I thought, I want to make a blurb or a statement that would catch people's heart and eyes and mind."

Hume took a selfie showing her bald head, hoping people would be able to put a face to her story.

"It just was from my heart. I didn't get into anything fancy."

Snyder said there is nothing unethical about her appeal — but he worries only a fraction of voices are heard through crowdfunding campaigns.

"The people who are the most internet savvy, who know about these websites, who can tell their story in a really compelling way, and who aren't necessarily reticent about asking for help … those are the people who are most likely to get the help in these situations."

He said that means more marginalized people have a harder time getting financial support from strangers.

"It's not really meeting people's needs based on their needs, at the end of the day, but it's about who can tell a story in a way that's going to encourage people to help them out."

As for Hume, she said that through crowdfunding she tried to touch people's souls.

"To say, 'This woman's in dire straits, she's going through cancer treatment and it's a long haul and I have a little bit of money, maybe I'll just donate to her.'"

To hear more from Lynn Hume and Jeremy Snyder, as well as comments from B.C. Almanac listeners, click the audio labelled: The ethics of medical crowdfunding.

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