The transplant boom Organ shortage: Why no concerted public effort to encourage donations?

March 27, 1996

NO STORY about the medical miracles of human organ transplants can skirt the great limitation on these lifesaving procedures: There are more potential recipients of organs than suitable donors.

This imbalance is not new, and in some ways things have gotten better. Many people register their willingness to donate on their driver's license and new medicines have allowed the successful use of organs from a wider range of donors. Even so, most of the hard questions that still trouble ethicists about transplants stem from the shortage of donated organs.

As more people are deemed eligible for organ transplants, the pressure for donors increases. In some ways, the shortage represents good news: Airbags and seat belts in automobiles and helmets for motorcycle riders help cut down on fatalities in the kinds of highway accidents that often produce the best organ donors -- young, otherwise healthy people who meet a sudden death.

But those tragedies represent only one source of organs. Organ donation is possible in thousands of other cases as well, but patients and their families fail to consider the option. And no wonder -- despite all the news stories about the shortage of organs and the lifesaving possibilities from donation, the public has yet to see a comprehensive, sustained public information program. That's what it will take to increase donations and save lives.

A country that has gone to heroic efforts -- successfully -- to curb drunk driving or curtail smoking is capable of this kind of campaign. Yet imagine how much public opinion could be swayed if the health care community, with help from public officials, organized such an effort.

They could make use of everything from the bully pulpits of the president and the surgeon general to the influence of family physicians, clergy and other respected members of the community. The goal should be to educate every American about the possibilities of transplants and the need for people to thoughtfully consider donating their own organs at their deaths, if those organs could be of use.

A concerted campaign may not entirely solve the organ shortage, but it would help. And it would surely save many lives.

Pub Date: 3/27/96

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