A Facebook Fix for Organ Transplants

Organ donation shortage shown to benefit from social media

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Friends, kin and strangers share all sorts of information through the various social media. In addition to sometimes silly personal stuff, serious health matters also find their way onto those online platforms.

With millions of users, the global site Facebook launched a campaign that has dramatically increased the number of registered organ donors in the United States, a new study shows. 

"Registering as an organ donor helps meet a rising need."

Andrew Cameron, MD, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins University, was lead author of the study examining 13 days of Facebook activity in May 2012.

During those few days, roughly 39,000 people in the United States registered by first clicking Facebook’s then new “organ donor” option, an action that showed up in timelines capturing Facebook members’ activity. That click led them to their state’s online donor registration site.

That first day’s registration figure represented almost 33,000 more registrants than were expected, based on prior rates of registration through such means as states' Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), researchers wrote.

The new registrations comes at a time when the number of people needing donated organs is rising faster than are the number of organ donors.

When the researchers finished their study, 100,000 Americans were on waiting lists for organ transplants. Facebook had 150 million users in the United States and 900 worldwide, researchers wrote. 

The number of people needing organ transplants has increased 10-fold over the last two decades, researchers wrote. Nevertheless, the number of potential organ donors has remained relatively unchanged during the same period. Certain groups, including racial minorities, have even lower rates of organ donation, they wrote.

“The Institute of Medicine has estimated that an additional [5,000 to] 10 000 deceased patients per year would be appropriate for donation but are lost due to failure to obtain consent,” researchers wrote. “Given that each donor can provide up to eight solid organs and additional tissue for transplantation, improved donation rates would have a major impact on the organ shortage. However, lack of consent for deceased donation is prevalent..."

According to researchers, on the first day alone of Facebook’s special project, there was a 21.1-fold increase in the number of registered organ donors. That day, 13,054 people registered online to become organ donors. That compared to roughly 600 people who registered nationwide, on average, on a single day through states' Department of Motor Vehicles.

Though the number of Facebook registrations declined after that first day, they still outpaced the count of registrations at the DMV during the following 12 days in May 2012, researchers wrote.

"Additionally," the researchers wrote, "DMV and social media efforts need not be mutually exclusive: if a new registrant at the DMV is then also encouraged to announce that decision on Facebook, the power of the single registration may be multiplied [manifold] by the influence of the message as it spreads in the social network."

Laurie Reece, Executive Director of the Texas Transplantation Society, called the "Facebook effect" an interesting one. She added, however, that the number of registrants documented by the Johns Hopkins researchers are modest compared to gains in her state.

"Now that 100 percent of Facebook users have the timeline, and can thus announce certain actions publicly, it would be great if Facebook made another push during the next Donate Life Month to see if the results could be replicated," Reece said. 

But, she continued: "In the past two years, the Donate Life Texas registry has gone from the nation’s worst to one of the nation’s finest. Donate Life Texas is now the nation’s fastest growing registry and one of only two in the nation to have registered over 150,000 people in a single month.

"More than 7,000 people are registering with Donate Life Texas daily. Clearly, it appears, in Texas, that the partnership of Donate Life Texas with the state's [Department of Public Safety] and DMV has resulted in tremendous gains far exceeding those using social media."

"Nonetheless, we should take gains wherever we can get them, and it's undeniable that social media can have a beneficial effect on organ donation awareness."

There are two ways to become a donor. Before dying, potential donors living in the United States must register and agree that their organs may be harvested for possible transplantation. Also, relatives of a deceased person can give the go-ahead for such a harvesting.

Researchers noted that while 95 percent of polled Americans say they support organ donation, no more than 30 percent to 50 percent of residents in each state registers to become a donor. Indeed, while 39,000 Facebook users registered to become organ donors on May 1, 2012, approximately 100,000 Facebook members clicked the “organ donor” link.

With backing from Johns Hopkins, the Living Legacy Foundation of Baltimore and Donate Life America, Facebook added the “organ donor” link to the state donor sites. In addition to registration forms, the sites provide educational materials about what donation does and does not entail.

This study was published June 18 in the American Journal of Transplantation.

The researchers did not report any involvement of financial investments that would influence study design or outcome.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 15, 2013
Last Updated:
August 2, 2013