National Donate Life Month: How a Video Can Increase the Number of Organ Donors

Apr 20, 2012, 1:00 PM, Posted by


Imagine you’re at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), waiting to get your driver’s license. As you wait, you watch a five-minute video on an iPod. In it, a daughter describes how excited she is that her father, whose life was saved by a heart transplant, will be able to attend her high school graduation. Another girl mentions how she was able to attend her high school prom because someone donated a new heart to her. And a woman talks about her choice to become a living donor, and meeting the recipient of her kidney. In all, you watch 20 people—of different ages and ethnicities—tell their transplant stories in their own words.

Now it’s your turn at the counter. Do you have them place that red heart on your driver’s license?

Today, more than 113,000 people in the United States are waiting for organ transplants. More than half of those on the waiting list are minorities. But in 2011, only 14,000 people donated their organs while the waiting list grew by another 51,000 people.

In a study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, my colleagues and I found that people were more likely to consent to become organ donors after watching a short iPod video at the DMV that addressed common concerns about organ donation and included testimonials from donors, transplant recipients and their loved ones. Eighty-four percent of people who watched the video—compared to 72 percent who did not—consented to be an organ donor on their driver’s permits, licenses or identification cards.

This approach was especially successful among African-Americans, who make up a large, and increasing, percentage of those in need of donated organs, but a relatively small portion of registered donors. Seventy-six percent of African-Americans who watched the video consented to be organ donors, compared to 54 percent who hadn’t seen the video.

Millions of Americans obtain driver’s licenses each year, and the DMV plays an important role in expanding the nation’s registered donor list. This simple, inexpensive intervention has the potential to substantially increase the number of potential organ donors.

Through the course of my career as a pulmonologist and critical care doctor, I’ve cared for countless patients who, after waiting nervously for what seemed like an eternity, received transplants and returned to their lives—all because someone gave them a chance at a better life. But I’ve also seen the other side, too: patients who passed away while waiting for organs to become available, as well as patients who passed away without donating, perhaps simply because they did not understand the magnitude of the need for organs or how many lives could be saved by their gift.

April is National Donate Life Month. Now more than ever, I encourage you to learn the facts about organ donation. This is a problem of awareness, and we can do something about that. Help save lives by registering as a donor, tell your loved ones of your decisions and encourage them to donate as well.

Read Thornton’s study.

Read more about Thornton’s research on organ donation.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.