Organ Donation: A Different Sort of Relief Effort

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006
This post was written by Melanie Matthews

A reminder in a financial newsletter prompted a discussion in my home last night. April is “Donate Life Month,” which celebrates those who have donated organs and encourages more people to consider organ donation. Many Americans already support this effort: in 2005, more than 28,000 organ transplants were completed in the United States, more than any other period in history.

But more donors are needed. According to The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network , as of 9:11 a.m. this morning, 92,024 people were on waiting lists for organ transplants. (Some candidates have multiple registrations if he or she is waiting at more than one center, or is waiting for multiple organs.) This wait takes a physical and emotional toll on these patients and their families, as well as a financial toll on the healthcare organizations supporting them.

To understand this human bottleneck, it’s worth a look at how this country recruits potential donors. The United States has an opt-in approach for organ donations, where potential donors consent to the process by indicating on their drivers’ licenses, completing and carrying a donor card or notifying their families of their wishes. Despite the millions spent on educating Americans about these enrollment processes, only 30 percent of Americans are registered organ donors today.

This prompted my family to review our driver’s licenses. Nowhere on my own New Jersey driver’s license—renewed in February 2005—does it state that I am an organ donor or provide a place for me to indicate this. I know my previous license (an older format) had a place for me to check this option, and a look at my nephew’s older license confirmed this. According to the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles, a driver must ask for the organ donor registration form . Once the driver completes the form, their driver’s license would identify them as an organ donor. If I rely on this option, I won’t have another chance to register as a donor until I renew my license in August 2008.

At present, there is no national organ donor registry, although more than 20 states have created their own donor registries.

In contrast, more than 21 European and Asian countries have switched to an “opt-out” or presumed consent system, which assumes that citizens will donate their organs unless they (or in some countries their next of kin) say they will not. Many of these governments have set up a “refusal list,” where citizens not wishing to donate organs may register. This is an ethically and politically charged issue, but the bottom line is that presumed consent is one way to address the shortage of organs in the United States and save lives.

This country may be years away from an opt-out system, but there are other steps we can take to boost awareness and donor registration in this country. Creating additional opportunities to register—ones with easy public access and the means to validate donor data—is one suggestion. Home and health insurance renewals, healthcare organization open enrollment, annual medical check-ups, school registrations, school board and government elections, municipal tax payments and local library visits are logical times to offer donor sign-ups.

We Americans are a generous bunch, accustomed to donating blood and responding quickly to relief efforts at home and abroad. According to a 2001 report sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Office of Special Programs, Division of Transplantation, a low rate of family consent to donation is one of the major barriers to organ donation. One donor can provide organs, bone and tissue for 80 or more people in need. Why not make an unselfish gesture today and relieve family from making a difficult decision at an emotional time by signing up to be an organ donor?

P.S. By 12:31 p.m. today, there were 92,023 people on the waiting list for organ donations—one less than when I started this entry. You can make a difference.

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