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GoFundMe: crowdfunding medical campaigns present ethical dilemma

02/04/2015 02:49 EST | Updated 04/06/2015 05:59 EDT
Online crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe and YouCaring.com 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 B.C. Almanac's Michelle Eliot, Hume said 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 e-mailed 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 very private person, and said 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 says, though he doesn't believe that's widespread.

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

He says 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 when setting up her site, she carefully considered how her story was being told.

"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 says in crowdfunding, she tried to touch people's soul.

"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 about the ethics around crowdfunding for medical treatment and to share your thoughts on the open line, tune in to B.C. Almanac between 12:30 and 1 p.m. PT on CBC Radio One throughout B.C. or online.

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