Online pleas for medical help grow

16:00, Apr 04 2014

Crowdfunding for health-related causes is on the rise as people realise platforms exist to "take matters into their own hands", says Givealittle's service manager.

Nathalie Whitaker says health causes are a notable theme for Givealittle, which has raised nearly $9 million since its inception in 2009, and crowdfunding worldwide.

Asking people for money on the internet first became popular with start-ups and artists in the United States.

Entrepreneurs and creatives discovered they could secure funding for their projects on websites like Kickstarter. Other sites then emerged, aimed specifically at helping people raise money for medical expenses.

Whitaker says she noticed the trend in New Zealand "within weeks" of Givealittle's launch.

The platform was originally aimed at charities and registered organisations and individual causes were "a bit of an afterthought".


Last year, about 30 per cent of the 1454 causes listed on Givealittle were health-related, either for medical costs or financial support for other things like travel to receive offshore treatment.

Whitaker says one of the site's first individual causes was a woman who had a severe motorbike accident in Vietnam. Her family successfully crowdfunded money to cover the costs of an urgent medical evacuation.

It showed how successful fundraising can be when people combine crowdfunding sites like Givealittle with social media platforms like Facebook.

In Christchurch, a cause raised more than $23,000 from 318 donations to ease the burden of bills for artist Tony Cribb's young family after his neurosurgery.

Another cause has raised more than $45,000 for costs surrounding a Christchurch man's treatment for a rare form of cancer - neuroendocrine tumours or NET.

Andrei Martin is undergoing peptide receptor radionuclide therapy in Australia, but the Ministry of Health does not provide funding for the treatment.

"They claim this is an investigative treatment rather than a medical cure, but it's actually [making] a difference," he says.

A scan in January showed a 20 per reduction in Martin's primary tumour and "nothing has grown".

Martin says Givealittle is an "amazing" platform, and without it he'd be battling to pay his medical bills.

"Two thirds to three quarters of the donations I have received are from people I have never met or don't know."

Whitaker says while Givealittle does not "market for certain types of causes", there is "no doubt" a need when it comes to Kiwis' health.

"It's a complex thing, but essentially it all comes down to a need that arises out of a lack of something - a lack of insurance, a lack of government funding for medicine, a lack of specialists available locally or a lack of time to do things before passing away. We also see quite a bit of fundraising for families that have lost somebody," she says.

A common cause is cochlear implants for children, as the public health system pays for only one. A lot of families seek the opportunity to have a second cochlear implant done at a cost of about $35,000 - if done at the same time - to $50,000.

There is also a "huge" component of overseas treatment to many of the causes listed on Givealittle, where there are no specialists available for rare conditions within New Zealand.

Toby Dale, an identical twin, was born with a rare growth disorder called Russell Silver Syndrome. Weighing just 480 grams at birth, he has cheated death countless times in his three years.

His Hamilton-based family has raised more than $6500 through Givealittle to take him to see medical experts at a Chicago conference, in July, run by the Major Aspects of Growth in Children Foundation.

Toby's mother, Jacquie Dale, says they want to learn more about growth hormone drugs, which if they go ahead with in New Zealand could cost thousands of dollars a year. Dale says if they decide to go down that path, the family may have to turn to Givealittle again.

"I have not been able to work for the last three years [and] it has worked really well so far."

According to the Health Funds Association of New Zealand, the number of lives covered by health insurance in New Zealand reduced by 60,000 between 2008 and 2013.

Chief executive Roger Styles says while "it's just starting to recover" after the economic downturn, it is good that sites like Givealittle exist.

"We're going to need all the different types of funding we can get in health, because the costs are not going to go down. The government can't afford everything," he says.

"But I wouldn't want to rely on [Givealittle]. It's not certain whether you're going to raise enough money and it's quite distressing for people to go through that."

PledgeMe founder Anna Guenther says crowdfunding for health-related causes is not something her site experiences a lot of, because it requires causes to meet their funding goals for money to change hands.

"With health, people just want to give no matter what . . . they don't care if a goal is met or not," she says.

"It aligns better with a donation portal like Givealittle than us."

Another fundraising platform, One Dollar Warriors, specifically for people needing to travel overseas for health-related technology, resources or medical know-how, is due to launch in New Zealand this year.

The site is being set up by Auckland couple Robbie and Jacqui Ritchie, who themselves successfully crowdfunded nearly $200,000 in seven weeks.

The money went towards overseas treatment of "a ticking time bomb" in Robbie's head - a huge and inoperable mass of malformed blood vessels, known as arteriovenous malformation (AVM).

Through a database of givers, One Dollar Warriors will share stories of people who need treatment overseas. People will then be able to decide which cause they want to support.

"It's [based on] the idea that if you need $200,000, you ask 200,000 people for a dollar each," says Jacqui.

Whitaker says the tragedy for Givealittle is seeing "health-related causes that actually struggle to get any generosity".

"We take a very neutral approach to the platform, and it's definitely not a given that just because you have a rare illness that you will succeed on Givealittle."

Overall, however, it's clear that New Zealanders are going public with their stories rather than suffering in silence. And it is working.

"It's providing visibility to generosity that has potentially always been there."

The Press