Organ procurement groups had record year

Early referrals from intensive care units helped to drive increases in organ donations.

By Andis Robeznieks — Posted Feb. 14, 2005

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According to preliminary estimates, the United States experienced an "absolutely unprecedented" 10.8% increase in organ donations in 2004. The federal government's Organ Donation Breakthrough Collaborative is being credited for driving that increase.

The 230 hospitals participating in the collaborative, which seeks to identify and copy the practices of the nation's most successful transplant centers, saw increases of about 16% in their donation rates, said Michelle Snyder, associate administrator for the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration's Health Systems Bureau.

"We absolutely believe there is a correlation, if not a direct causation," Snyder said of the collaborative's effect on organ donation rates.

Collaborative director Dennis Wagner said the project is responsible for dramatic increases at Detroit's Henry Ford Hospital. Before joining the collaborative, the hospital received donations from 25% of all potential donors -- barely more than half of the national average of 46%. As of September 2004, Wagner said the hospital is now seeing a "conversion rate" of 82%.

"There are lots of examples like that," he said. "There has been improvement at hundreds of hospitals."

The improvement has not just come from boosting hospitals that were struggling with low numbers. Three organ procurement organizations with traditionally high numbers had their biggest years ever in 2004.

Philadelphia-based Gift of Life, which consistently receives more donated organs than any other OPO, reported that 1,131 people received organs from 387 donors in 2004, a 13% increase from 2003.

Gift of Life President and CEO Howard Nathan credited organ donor signups at state drivers license facilities, extensive advertising with minority newspapers and radio stations, an experienced staff and early referrals from hospital intensive care units as keys to their success.

"It's not just the death of one person," Nathan said. "It's six or seven people who depend on [the ICU] making a call to the OPO."

Wagner agreed that early referrals were important in helping connect possible donor families with organ procurement representatives. "Early referral equals more time, more time equals more trust, and more trust equals more donations," he said.

In addition to providing a model for the collaborative, the organization will soon become a learning center for others. In January, the Gift of Life Institute opened to offer consent training and instruction in organ donation-related issues.

Just to the east, the New Jersey Organ and Tissue Sharing Network recorded a 36% increase in donations, going from 129 in 2003 to 159 in 2004. Call Center director Gerry McKeown credited the collaborative for at least part of that increase.

"I think it's had a significant impact, plus our public education efforts are bearing fruit," he said.

McKeown said that the network has added in-house coordinators at the two major trauma centers in the region and has added Spanish-speaking coordinators as well.

In Colorado and Wyoming, the Denver-based Donor Alliance also saw a record-breaking year as 205 organs were transplanted from 100 donors. A donor registry Web site is credited for some of the success, as 60% of the donors were on the registry at the time of their deaths.

Donor Alliance spokeswoman Nikki Wheeler said the development of family support teams with training in social work and grief counseling have helped fuel the success. Support teams now also feature Spanish- and Russian-speaking personnel.

Wagner said the recruitment of minority support staff has helped the cause as there are now more "like requestors," which helps when working with families during times of tragedy.

Snyder said donor organizations can't be too eager in their quest for organs and have to remain sensitive to donor families.

"We have to remember it's a success story for the recipient, but also a tragedy for the donor family," Snyder said.

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