When Mary Isham's pancreatic cancer metastasized a year ago, she believed her only hope of survival was a cutting-edge radiation treatment offered in Europe. To help save Isham's life, her friends turned to the Internet to get the financial support she desperately needed.
When her rare form of the disease was diagnosed in 1999, Isham underwent surgeries to remove her pancreas, gallbladder and spleen, as well as part of her stomach and intestines. In the summer of 2012, after learning that Isham's cancer had spread to her liver, her friends Micky Duxbury and Linda John turned to the crowdfunding website GiveForward.com to raise enough money to send Isham to Germany for a course of three radiation treatments.
(MORE: How Online Volunteers Support Caregivers)
"It started with 10 people and grew from there," says Isham, now 64. "People from my neighborhood in San Francisco, my yoga class and friends of friends all came together to spread the word through e-mails and Facebook. They created an online support network, where they made donations, left messages and sent virtual hugs."
The campaign raised $41,032, enough to cover her travel and treatment. Isham just underwent the third round of radiation and is hopeful that it has reduced the tumors and prolonged her life.
More Americans struggling to meet the rising cost of their own health care are turning to online crowdfunding sites, like GiveForward, YouCaring.com and Fundly.com, to collect money for out-of-pocket expenses, like surgeries, co-pays and medication. (In return for facilitating such campaigns, these sites typically charge a processing fee of 7 to 12 percent on all donations received.)
The Internet as Safety Net
According to a 2011 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, half of American adults say they wouldn't be able to easily produce $2,000 in the event of a medical emergency. Nearly 75 percent of those surveyed said that, to come up with the money, they would have to dip into savings, ask friends and family for help or rely on credit cards or a home equity line of credit.
For many, those drastic steps create personal financial crises from which they cannot recover. A 2012 study released by the American Journal of Medicine found that 62 percent of all bankruptcies filed in 2007 were tied to medical expenses.
(MORE: How to Estimate Your Health Care Costs in Retirement)
The average cancer patient in the United States incurs as much as $8,500 a year in expenses not covered by insurance, says Ethan Austin, co-founder of GiveForward, which specializes in raising money for medical bills. "If 75 percent of Americans can't come up with $2,000 in an emergency, imagine how few can come up with $8,500," he says. "Basically, that makes us all charity cases."
It's a reality, Austin claims, too few of us like to acknowledge. "We're often afraid to give when times are bad because we don't want our loved ones to feel like a charity case," he says. "We believe that stigma needs to end. The act of giving can be an empowering experience and can really help people in times of need."
Van Fronhofer's family learned firsthand about the crushing weight of sudden care costs last October. A tree fell on Fronhofer, 64, of New York, while he worked in his yard, causing him to hit his head on a rock. He suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Rachel Orlyk, a friend of Fronhofer's daughter, Amanda, stepped forward to help the family raise money for Fronhofer's long road to recovery. "I wanted them to be able to focus on Van's recovery and not worry about the cost of his care," she says.
(MORE: A Health Economist Confronts His Family's Medical Costs)
Orlyk sent a mass e-mail directing friends and family to the GiveForward campaign page she created to cover the cost of a hospital bed, wheelchair and a part-time, in-home health aide. Recipients forwarded the message to others and posted the call on Facebook and Twitter. To date, 241 donors have contributed more than $50,000.
Beyond Medical Care
Crowdfunding is a booming niche in the U.S. economy. Kickstarter and similar sites raise start-up money for hundreds of small businesses, inventions, video games, movies and a range of other creative concepts. Other sites focus on philanthropy. Fundly chief executive Dave Boyce says his site raised more than $2.5 million for storm relief projects in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last fall. Other Fundly campaigns are seeking money for an international adoption, to cover funeral expenses for a loved one who died suddenly and to help Syrian refugees.
(MORE: 5 Places to Find Money for Your Start-Up Business)
"Sites like ours provide an easy way for people to raise funds for causes they are passionate about," Boyce says. "Whether a city is trying to raise money to build a senior center or a team wants to gain sponsors for an Alzheimer's walk-a-thon, we provide a venue that takes the intimidation and awkwardness out of going door-to-door or asking friends at work to donate."
Sites dedicated to empowering medical research, like Consano.org, have added a new wrinkle to the crowdfunding sector. Consano, which launched in March, allows consumers to donate directly to medical research projects. "Typically, research is paid for by grants from government or other large funding institutions," says Dr. Jimmy Lin, a computational biologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and an adviser to the site. Consano lists projects being launched by university researchers, for example, to determine the genetic risk of ovarian cancer, halt cancerous tumor cells, and teach pregnancy ultrasound techniques to help reduce maternal and infant death in developing countries.
Raregenomics.org provides access to genome sequencing to families whose children may be affected by genetic disorders, like sickle cell anemia, Huntington's disease and scleroderma. Families consult with a Rargenomics patient advocate, who can work to connect them with a geneticist investigating rare disorders at one of many participating academic research sites across the country. Once a family locates a relevant project, the site facilitates a campaign (if necessary) to crowdfund the cost of the child's sequencing, typically between $3,000 and $10,000.
"A lot of families that come to us have exhausted treatments and research resources," says Lin, who co-founded Raregenomics. "We hope that our site will not only help them get answers, but also help advance medical science."