HHS readies for Facebook organ donation initiative

The Health and Human Services Department is preparing for a surge of interest in organ donation due to a new initiative announced May 1 by Facebook.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would begin allowing users to publish their organ donor status on their Timeline profiles. The social network also plans to help its 160 million users in the United States locate and sign up with state donor registries.

While some have called it a publicity stunt, HHS officials said Facebook's involvement could result in a large increase in commitments to donations.

HHS’ Health Resources and Services Administration, which regulates organ donation in the U.S., supports Facebook’s initiative, said HRSA spokesman David Bowman. While the agency is not directly involved with the Facebook campaign, an increase in interest could put more demand on the agency's support systems, including databases and IT systems, along with those of state agencies and contractors.

“Getting the word out to potential donors is a priority,” Bowman said. “Facebook has a huge reach, and this will be a great service.”

HRSA operates the Organdonor.gov website, which provides basic information about organ donation and transplantation and referrals to the state registries. It also oversees the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, which maintains a national patient waiting list for available organs.

About 100 million people in the U.S. have made some type of commitment to donate organs or tissues. About 114,000 people are waiting for organs to become available.

Since most organ donations occur following death, the full impact of Facebook’s campaign likely will not be known for years, although there may be some surge in kidney donations from living donors. Facebook already is a popular resource for families to seek prospective kidney donors.

About 35 percent of the 17,000 kidney donations a year currently come from family members and friends, and it is a possible that proportion may increase due to Facebook’s campaign to make organ donation a more prominent feature of the social network, said Joel Newman, assistant director of communications for the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit organization that manages the U.S. transplant system under contract with HRSA.

Since organ donation is a serious commitment, and many people have questions, the impact of Facebook’s campaign may take several weeks or months to determine, Newman added.

“This is the start of a conversation,” he said. “It is a great opportunity to get more people to move from ‘I’m thinking about it’ to action and commitment.”

Current HRSA, contractor and state databases and information technology systems should be adequate to handle any capacity increases that might result from the Facebook donor encouragement campaign, Bowman and Newman said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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