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Facebook campaign led to dramatic jump in organ donors, says study

By Rachel Landen
Posted: June 18, 2013 - 1:45 pm ET

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The number of organ donors jumped dramatically last year when Donate Life America—an organization that seeks to promote organ donation—partnered with Facebook to draw attention to the national organ shortage, according to a study by Johns Hopkins University researchers published in the June edition of the American Journal of Transplantation.

Through the social media campaign, Facebook users could share their organ donor status with their friends, and on the first day of the program, 57,451 users updated their profiles to do just that. Links were also provided so Facebook users could go to the websites of their respective state motor vehicles departments and make their organ donor status official. On that first day, 13,012 new donors registered online. That number is 21.2 times higher than the average daily registration of 616 new donors.

Though registrations were not equal across states—Michigan saw a seven-fold increase in new donors on the first day, while Georgia's new registrations were almost 109 times that of a normal day—and online registrations dropped during the next 12 days of the initiative, the number of new registrants was still twice the average rate at the end of the study, conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers.

“The short-term response was incredibly dramatic, unlike anything we had ever seen before in campaigns to increase the organ donation rate,” Dr. Andrew Cameron, study leader, transplant surgeon and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a release. “If we can harness that excitement in the long term, then we can really start to move the needle on the big picture. The need for donor organs vastly outpaces the available supply and this could be a way to change that equation.”

There are currently more than 118,000 people on organ transplant waiting lists in the U.S., and thousands of these patients will die waiting for organs. Meanwhile, somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people whose organs would be usable for transplants, had they consented to be donors, die annually. But because they have not volunteered to have their organs donated, or their families do not give permission at the time of death, these organs go unused.

The idea behind the Facebook campaign came from Cameron and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who were classmates at Harvard. During a 2011 college reunion, the two discussed the organ shortage, and subsequent conversations led to the creation of the Facebook organ donor status. In order to build on the momentum of the early days of the campaign, there are talks of relaunching the initiative on Facebook's mobile platform, changing its prominence in the Web version, or offering incentives to users who share their organ donor status.

“The half-life of a movement online is often just hours,” Cameron said. “This had a very powerful, lasting effect. But we need to find a way to keep the conversation going.”

Other Johns Hopkins researchers who contributed to this study—“Social Media and Organ Donor Registration: The Facebook Effect”—include Allan Massie, Dr. Robert Montgomery, and Dr. Dorry Segev.

Follow Rachel Landen on Twitter: @MHrlanden



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