Getting help when you need it most: Crowd funding medical bills

Seeing a loved one sick or injured can be frustrating—you want to help them, but you don’t know how. Especially when someone you care about is in the hospital, it’s easy to feel helpless despite your best intentions. This toll is compounded when the patient is someone you’re close with, like a family member or dear friend. Mylar balloons and bouquets of flowers decorate the hospital suite, telling a tale of love and support. But those flowers will soon whither, and those balloons will deflate.

Then there’s the elephant in the room: the looming medical costs that will inevitably follow. We don’t often want to talk about that medical debt during the hospital stay, but it’s the leading cause of personal bankruptcy cases.

READ MORE: Credit Scoring Change Will Lessen Impact of Medical Debt

Desiree Vargas Wrigley, co-founder and CEO of crowd funding platform GiveForward, knows all about this sad phenomenon. Founded in August 2008, GiveForward was conceived by Wrigley and co-founder Ethan Austin as an alternative to typical charities, a way to help people immediately and see where the money is going. Since then, the site has helped people in need raise a collective $115 million. Most of GiveForward’s campaigns are medical causes, created by concerned friends and family with a loved one in their time of deepest need.

“There are literally millions of families each year taking on medical debt,” Wrigley explained. “Meanwhile, there are 30 or more friends surrounding that family asking what they can do to help.  They send flowers and bake casseroles, which – while appreciated – do not really help with the bigger issue weighing on the family — the mounting bills in their mailboxes.”

READ MORE: How to Manage Medical Debt

Perhaps that’s the genius of medical crowd funding: It offers a way to funnel that concern into something useful. Instead of traditional, well-intentioned gifts, friends and family can put whatever they would have spent on teddy bears and chocolates into an account that will allow the patient to make much better use of those dollars.

If focusing on the money seems like a cold approach to a medical problem, consider this: At every hospital, there is an entire team of trained medical professionals ready to help, including doctors, nurses, medical assistants and other technicians. They’ve gone through years of schooling and have been licensed and certified. These are great hands to be in, and they must provide help even if they know the patient can’t pay, but the bill still comes. Good help at that point is in much smaller supply.

READ MORE: How One Woman Saved Consumers $100 Million on Medical Bills

Even with really good health insurance, the financial toll of a medical emergency is usually palpable. “Out-of-pocket costs are not just co-pays and deductibles,” said Wrigley. “They also include lost wages when your treatment exceeds paid time off, extra day care, travel to and from treatment, lodging for loved ones, eating out more frequently and even paying for parking at the hospital.  All of those expenses add up quickly.”

Enter the happy ending, provided by none other than a caring network of family and friends. Once an online campaign is started, donations can start coming in from loved ones. But after they share on social media, campaigns often catch like Internet wildfire, going viral and drawing the support of strangers. Indeed, many medical campaigns raise over $100,000 once going viral.

Most people don’t need that much money, though. Most people with fundraising campaigns need $10,000 or $20,000 to make ends meet, and the majority of support comes from people in their daily lives.

READ MORE: How to Choose a Crowdfunding Site

“We know that about 80 percent of donations come from close friends and family,” Wrigley said. “This means that medical crowd funding is not like digital panhandling. GiveForward has simply taken what people have been doing for thousands of years, namely supporting each other, and made it seamless through the power of Internet and social networks.”

That way, the caring network of friends and family can really help, and the patient can focus on healing.

Lacie Glover writes for NerdWallet Health, a website that helps people reduce their medical bills.