Measures of success from a selection of GoFundMe campaigns by or for people in Snohomish County.

Crowdfunding efforts often fall short in covering medical bills

More people are turning to crowdfunding websites to help pay unexpected medical bills, but new research shows that often can be a fruitless effort.

University of Washington Bothell researchers looked at 200 randomly sampled campaigns and found that 90 percent of them did not reach their financial goals. On average, the drives generated $3,000, only 40 percent of what was hoped to be raised.

Worse, 10 percent of the campaigns raised less than $100, according to the study published last month in Social Science &Medicine.

“Raising $500 or $1,000 is certainly helpful,” said Nora Kenworthy, an assistant professor who works in nursing and health studies at the school. “A lot of times campaigns are looking to cover fairly hefty medical bills. What they’re able to raise on these sites certainly doesn’t cover the vast majority of the bills they have.”

Kenworthy joined with Lauren Berliner, an assistant professor who works in UW Bothell’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts &Sciences, to author the study.

“I think both of us had experienced a significant increase of requests for donations through crowdfunding through our own personal lives especially for ameliorating the high costs of health care,” Berliner said.

People tell their stories on these sites — including YouCaring, GiveFoward and Fundly — with the hope of raising money for unexpected costs such as medical emergencies. GoFundMe, the largest such site, has hosted more than 2 million campaigns for medical costs.

GoFundMe charges a 7.9 percent fee on all the money raised through donations.

Last summer, Kenworthy and Berliner examined a two-week period where 165,000 campaigns on the GoFundMe site were raising money for health care. These drives weren’t all posted in that two weeks; most were posted months if not years before.

They found a wide range of requests that included people asking for money to get rid of tattoos, help pull out rotten teeth and support for the care of children with cancer.

“I was surprised at just how many campaigns there were out there,” Berliner said. “I think Nora and I knew there were quite a few of these campaigns that were out there. We were really blown away by just how many.”

Of those drives, Kenworthy and Berliner randomly selected 200 to study closer. They found that people who were skilled at telling their story — using social media, photos and video — were able to generate more in donations than those less skilled.

“A lot of the donations are still coming from the personal network not from any of these campaigns going viral,” Kenworthy said.

People who had a single, identifiable issue also fared better than people who had multiple issues and faced many financial problems.

One of the more interesting aspects, Kenworthy said, was the campaigns were more likely to come from states that rejected Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. While 39 percent of the U.S. population lives in those states, 54 percent of the campaigns came from those states.

Kenworthy and Berliner plan to dig further into these campaigns in future research, including selecting specific regions to focus on and to interview the people who are in the middle of these campaigns.

Beside raising money, these campaigns do provide social support and offer a way to ask for prayers and thoughts and communicate troubles to friends and others, Kenworthy said.

Still the initial research shows these campaigns fall short of providing the help needed. In the U.S., 62 percent of bankruptcies are tied to medical expenses, according to a 2012 American Journal of Medicine study.

“I think certainly for some people this is a tremendous help,” Kenworthy said. “But I think what we’re saying is that crowdfunding isn’t enough to fill the cracks in the health care system.”

Jim Davis: 425-339-3097; jdavis@heraldnet.com.

UW Bothell assistant professors Lauren Berliner (left) and Nora Kenworthy studied the effectiveness of crowdfunding campaigns set up by people needing help with unexpected medical expenses. Contributed photos

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