August is National Minority Donor Awareness Month. The goal of this annual observance is to increase organ, tissue and eye donor registrations among communities of color, which make up nearly 60 percent of the national waiting list for organ transplants.
As it stands, people of color make up a high percentage of those in need of a life-restoring transplant and a relatively low percentage of registered organ, tissue and eye donors. Organs are not matched with recipients based on race. So, the result is fewer organs and tissues available for waiting patients.
Organ and tissue transplant matches are not based on ethnicity. However, compatible blood types and tissue markers, critical qualities for donor-recipient matching, are more likely to be found within members of the same ethnic group. That means the probability of finding a donor match for someone waiting for an organ or tissue transplant is greatly improved if there are more registered donors from the individual’s own ethnic background.
By the numbers, just 26 percent of Black Americans waiting to receive a transplant got one in 2019, whereas nearly half of white Americans on the waiting list were able to be matched with donors and received transplants. Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American and LatinX populations also have stark disparities between the need for transplantation and the number of registered donors.
Closing the gap between transplant needs and registered donors in communities of color in Arkansas would not only improve the health of those communities, but it also has the potential to expand transplantation overall. In addition to the potential positive impact on public health and communities, this expansion could also mean less national health care spending. For example, Medicare spends billions of dollars each year on dialysis for end-stage renal disease. It’s been estimated that each kidney transplant has the potential to generate $60,000 in federal savings per year.
As the nonprofit organ recovery agency for 64 of the state’s counties, ARORA exists to restore lives. In addition to working with hundreds of partners throughout the state to maximize each opportunity for organ and tissue donation, we also strive to raise awareness about the importance of registering to become an organ, tissue and eye donor and also to remove barriers to registration.
Through the miracles of modern medical science, thousands of people’s lives are changed each year in Arkansas — but it absolutely cannot happen without donors. To make it easier for Arkansans to become potential donors, ARORA has begun installing kiosks in public spaces throughout the state where individuals can register to become organ, tissue and eye donors. Registration takes seconds and can be accomplished with the scanning of your driver’s license.
Whenever we can, ARORA shares stories of the life-restoring power of organ, tissue and eye donation in order to encourage individuals to consider registering. If there’s one message that ARORA has enthusiastically shared in the state, it’s that all people should consider themselves potential donors. Your race, ethnicity, age, religion and in most cases your health doesn’t matter.
In our efforts to bolster registration in Arkansas, we often address prevailing myths around organ and tissue donation. However, an additional barrier for people of color can be a lack of trust that sometimes exists between these communities and the health care system. There is also the issue of access to health care and affordability that disproportionately affects people of color in the United States, resulting in multicultural communities being at higher risk for health issues that lead to organ failure.
National Minority Donor Awareness Month provides an opportunity for us to educate on the disparities in health needs that affect communities of color. It is also an opportunity for us to honor the Black, LatinX, Asian and Pacific Islander individuals whose legacies live on through donation and whose lives were saved by the selfless decisions of others.
You can hear stories of Arkansans whose lives have been touched by organ and tissue donation on ARORA’s monthly RadiEight podcast, found on all major podcast platforms, or by following @ARORA/Donate Life Arkansas on Facebook, @DonateLifeArkansas on Instagram and @DonateLifeAR on Twitter.
Alan Cochran is president and executive director of ARORA, a nonprofit organ-recovery agency that serves 64 Arkansas counties. His leadership in the realm of organ and tissue donation spans two decades. Prior to joining ARORA in 2014, Cochran was vice president of quality systems at One Legacy in Los Angeles for 12 years.