According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, known as UNOS, more than 100,000 people are waiting for an organ transplant in the United States.
“I was born type 1 diabetic,” said Patrick McGlone, who received a double kidney-pancreas transplant in June 2021. “The word transplant was always thrown around.
Due to the lack of organs, there can be long waiting times. According to the UNOS, just over 50% of people waiting for an organ will receive one within five years.
UNOS is a private, not-for-profit organization that compiles all clinical information for candidates in the United States who need a transplant on what they call their computer waiting list. Since 1986, it has been handling the government order to process the organ donation process and coordinates with all other agencies involved.
The US organ donation system is designed to save as many lives as possible without wasting organs, but there are inequalities within the system that raise questions of fairness.
People of color, people with lower socioeconomic status, and women receive transplants at lower rates than the general population and are also more likely to wait longer for an organ than patients with similar medical conditions.
“The biggest equity challenge with transplantation is the same as with all of America’s healthcare system: getting it into the hospital at all,” said Brian Shepard, a former CEO of UNOS. “Transplantation is not immune to these injustices.”
“I think a lot of people think about organ transplants and they’re like, oh, that’s a problem for older people,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the department of medical ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “If you increase the number of transplants we do, you can have a much more productive workforce. It saves money. … So it’s a paperback problem for all of us.”
“It’s weird to say I saved money from the surgery,” McGlone said. “Diabetes care, between the supplies and the constant visits and the lab work and all the things you have to do. There are a lot [out-of-pocket costs] even with good insurance.”
The industry recognizes the importance of finding alternatives to using organs from deceased human donors to address the national shortage. One method is to encourage kidney donation from living donors.
“People have different opinions on this, but honestly it’s been the easiest process for me and everyone,” said Katharine Manor, who donated her kidney on behalf of her mentor. “It was really easy for me.”
“You might think we could campaign and encourage more people to do it, and you can,” Caplan said. “But the reality is most of us sitting around aren’t going to give a kidney to anyone we don’t know. It’s a big deal.”
Research is currently underway into using animal organs such as pigs, as well as building mechanical organs, to try to make up for the scarcity.
“Although we’re all fascinated by transplants, the ultimate goal is to get rid of them,” Caplan said. “What you want to do is either repair through cell engineering or artificial organs that can simply replace the failing natural organs.”
Watch them Video above to learn more about how the organ transplant system works and what we can do to increase supply while addressing inequalities.