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Study: Allowing organ donation status on Facebook increased number of donors

Could something as little as putting your organ donor status on your Facebook profile help save lives?

A new study published in the American Journal of Transplantation on June 18 showed that the social network gave a 21-fold boost to the number of people who registered themselves as organ donors in a single day.

The study comes at a time when the national organ shortage has come under spotlight, after an 11-year-old girl Sarah Murnaghan successfully suedto get et added to an adult lung waiting list. Pediatric lungs are in far shorter supply than adult lungs: In 2012 there were more than 1,700 lungs available, and all but 20 came from donors over 11 years old.

Facebook kicked off its organ donor status program last May.

"The short-term response was incredibly dramatic, unlike anything we had ever seen before in campaigns to increase the organ donation rate. And at the end of two weeks, the number of new organ donors was still climbing at twice the normal rate," study leader Dr. Andrew M. Cameron, an associate professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a press 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."

Facebook started its organ donor project after Cameron, who is a transplant surgeron, and his Harvard roommate Sheryl Sandberg, who is the current Facebook chief operating officer, began talking at their 20th college reunion in 2011 about the lack of organ donations. Mark Zuckerberg said he was inspired to include the option after talking with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who received a liver transplant, and his wife Priscilla Chan, who was a medical student at the time of the feature's launch. The option to include your donor status is available for accounts in the U.S. and U.K.

The number of people who have registered as organ donors has a little more than doubled since 1989, but the number of people who need organ donations has increased more than six times in the same period, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Currently, there are 118,489 people waiting for an organ. Eighteen people die each day waiting for their transplant, and one donor can save up to eight lives.

Researchers looked at data from online motor vehicle registration websites and Facebook on May 1, 2012, the day Facebook enabled the organ donation option. In total, 57,451 updated their profiles to include their organ donor status. There were 13,012 new online organ registrations across the U.S., meaning there was a 21.2 times increase from the average 616 daily registrations the first day of the program.

The rates changed from state to state. Michigan's organ donor registrations rose seven times over its daily average, while Georgia saw a whopping 109-fold increase over its typical daily statistics.

Over the next 12 days, the number of registrations slightly decreased, but it was still two times higher than the average daily rate by the end of the study period.

"Our research speaks to on-going efforts to address the organ availability crisis in the United States. It also suggests that social media and social networks may be valuable tools in re-approaching refractory public health problems," Cameron said. "However, the bump we saw did diminish over weeks, implying that more work is needed to assure sustainability or 'virality' in this case."

Other independent organizations like Donate Life California, a branch of Donate Life America which had partnered with Facebook for the organ donation feature, previously said thattheir donor signups increased by 1,400 percent within a day of Facebook's organ donor status option going live.

Cameron said he is in talks with Facebook officials on how to further promote the organ donation status option, including increasing visibility on a person's Web profile and offering coupons for people who state that they are a donor.

"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."

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