Earlier this summer I stumbled across an article published on Mashable that I found quite interesting and wanted to share it with you. The article, Big Data’s Effect on Organ Transplant Wait LIsts, is not only helpful to better understand the complicated process of matching donors to recipients, but also an encouraging reminder of the many people teaming up to save lives through the hope that is organ donation.
You can read here how economists, doctors, and mathematicians are teaming up together to take organ donation to a new level, using data and algorithms (the fancy word for the process of using a specific set of rules to find a calculation) in an effort to save more lives by helping match donors to recipients, more precisely.
Donors, Algorithms, and New Ideas
There are two basic categories of donors when it comes to the organ transplant process: organs that come from living donation (living donors) and organs that come when someone has died (deceased donors). When it comes to living donation, the most commonly transplanted organ is the kidney but there are instances that allow a doctor to transplant part of a living donor’s liver, lungs, pancreas, or intestine. There are many other organs that can be used from deceased donors, including the heart, liver, lungs, pancreas, intestines, cornea, kidneys, and others.
In 2013, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), about 80% of organs donated came from deceased donors, and for several years now, algorithms have helped match deceased donors to a compatible recipient. However, the massive shortage of kidneys - which currently make up over 75% of the demand for organs overall - continually proved to be an obstacle… which led to the idea of connecting incompatible donor pairs (usually a family member or close friend who wants to donate their kidney to their loved one in need, but is not a match) through “match theory” in an effort to increase the number of available kidneys from living donors.
Understanding the Waiting List
Have you ever wondered how recipients are matched with their donors? If you’re not familiar with the process it can be a bit confusing at first, but there is actually a very strategic method that goes into evaluating specific factors - including what type of organ is needed, the severity of the health of the potential recipient, the compatibility of blood type, the size of the organ needed, and the geography of the recipient (as there is a limited window of time that an organ can be transplanted during) - to make the most compatible match possible between donors and recipients.
Because the waiting list (which currently consists of over 123,000 people) “isn’t like waiting in line”, algorithms are used to organize patients’ data, and the Mashable article really helps to better understand how the process works.
Can Doctors Make More Matches?
From the article, “For instance, a husband wants to give a kidney to his ailing wife (Pair A), but tests deem them to be incompatible. What if, however, an algorithm could find the best possible match for the candidate in Pair A from another incompatible pair (Pair B)?”
Can an economics professor apply mathematical research to better solve the shortage of organs, especially for kidneys? Questions like these - along with the power of computers - are helping doctors, economists, and mathematicians to determine that if, by analyzing data like blood type, antibodies, and other medical information from candidates, the number of organ matches from living donors can be increased.
This research and information is already leading to additional transplants. In 2010 UNOS launched its Kidney Paired Donation Program based on this information and algorithm, and almost 3,000 paired donations have taken place to date.
Be sure to read the full article… and we’d love to hear your thoughts. You can leave us a comment in the section below this post.
Working for the Cause
We continue to work hard at Taylor’s Gift Foundation to make registering to become an organ donor easy, but our work doesn’t stop there. We help increase conversation about organ donation through events and speaking engagements, we award scholarships to high school seniors with an “Outlive Yourself” spirit, and through our Legacy Gift program we are able to help those that have been touched by organ donation. We are honored to do the work we do, but we can’t do it alone. Will you join us?
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