Crowdfunding health care: Could it work here?

A slew of new efforts to crowdfund health care in some of the world’s poorest places have won praise for their straight-forward nature and their promise. Could the same model work here in the U.S. to pay for life-changing surgeries and medical treatments for those who can’t afford it?

In Achham district in far western Nepal, where the winters are brutal and the heating options few, it’s not usual to suffer the kinds of injuries that a girl named Priyanka Bhul did at the age of one, when she fell into an open-pit fire. Without medical treatment, her badly burned skin hardened and contracted painfully, restricting the use of her right hand for a long stretch of her childhood.

The cost of surgery to restore movement to her hand was $840, a tiny fee by Western standards but prohibitive to Bhul’s family. At the age of 12, she won a kind of cosmic lottery by crossing paths with an organization with the means to help: Nyaya Health, a rural health initiative founded and run by some young Americans, including Executive Director Mark Arnoldy, a 2010 graduate of the University of Colorado.

Nyaya had been working since 2008 to provide free health care to the rural community where Bhul lived, with the usual blend of foundation money, philanthropic donations and public-sector support.

But in 2012, the organization started doing something different. Teaming with the health-care crowdfunding platform Watsi, Nyaya began posting photos and stories of people with health needs that went beyond the capacity of its basic care. Bhul’s story was posted online, and within three days, twenty-four strangers—most from the U.S., but also from Taiwan, Germany, Peru, Brazil, and Canada—had pitched in to cover the girl’s care.

So far, Nyaya has raised $153,000 through crowdfunding, paying for the medical care of 200 people that way, Arnoldy says. He notes that Nyaya hasn’t yet encountered any shortage of donors through this method, and the organization is looking to expand its reach so that more people can be treated.

The crowdfunding healthcare model has won praise and attention for being direct—people like to know what they’re paying for. And the hope is that it can be scaled up, reaching many more people as more health care organizations in far-flung locales adopt this fundraising method. Watsi already has partners working in Cambodia, Guatemala, Zambia, Somaliland and Haiti, among other places.

But you don’t have to travel that far to encounter unmet health needs. In Colorado, about one in seven are uninsured, according to the Colorado Health Institute’s Community Health Access Survey in 2013. Nearly half of the uninsured didn’t see a specialist, or didn’t fill a prescription, or otherwise didn’t get medical care because of costs.

It’s not uncommon for innovative ideas to emerge first in developing countries—where the barriers to entry are low—and then spread. See Kenya’s mobile banking system.

Could the crowdfunding of health care work here?

Already, individuals have thought of going to the crowd to pay for medical expenses in the U.S. On Crowd Tilt, a site that will “group fund anything,” you can find examples like this campaign, which raised $30,000 for the medical costs of U.S. Army Capt. Edward Wesley Klein, who lost both legs and an arm to an I.E.D.

But Arnoldy notes that a few big obstacles stand in the way before the model could take hold here.

The first is cost. A netizen’s $5 donation went a whole lot further for Priyanka Buhl than it would for Klein.

“The average cost of treatment for a patient in rural Colorado is going to be exponentially higher,” Arnoldy notes. “We cut off at $1,500.”

Second, the regulatory barriers—particularly privacy concerns—are a greater obstacle. It’s unclear how HIPAA and other regulations guarding patient data might factor in to a non-profit’s efforts to raise money for medical costs. That’s a deterrent, says Arnoldy.

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