By Elizabeth Lopatto
SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook's addition of a way for its users to tell people their organ-donor status helped boost the number of people who registered as donors 21-fold in one day.
Two weeks after the social networking website set up the profile information on May 1, 2012, the rate of new organ donors was still climbing twice as fast as before, according to a paper published Tuesday in the American Journal of Transplantation.
Organ donation has long been an interest of Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Menlo Park, Calif.- based Facebook. Demand for organs far outpaces the number of donors, with more than 118,000 Americans waiting for a life- saving transplant, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. An average 18 people die daily waiting for an organ.
"There's a real emotional reward for doing the right thing and telling people about it, and that leads to the best kind of peer pressure," said Andrew Cameron, a study author, and the surgical director of the liver transplant program at Johns Hopkins Medicine, in a telephone interview. "You hope it's contagious."
The study compared the number of Facebook organ donor profile updates from May 1, 2012, to May 28, 2012, with the organ donor registration data for 43 states and the District of Columbia. Data was unavailable for Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and West Virginia.
The first day the field was available, almost 60,000 users updated their organ donor profile. On the first day of the initiative, there were 13,000 new online organ donor registrations, a 21-fold increase over the baseline registration rate of 616 people a day. There were a total of almost 40,000 new organ donors registered over the course of the first 13 days, or almost 33,000 more people registering than usual. The number of new updates per day decreased to 538 on May 13.
Doctors can save as many as eight lives with a single person's organ donation and more than that with tissue donation, said Cameron. The Institute of Medicine estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 people who would make good donors are lost due to lack of consent, according to a 2006 report.
"The question is, when do we see an impact of a campaign like this?" Cameron said. "Probably not for many years. It will take years and years for the cohort to live their lives and pass away."
This isn't the first research on Facebook's networking effect. A single message sent to 60 million people on Facebook may have encouraged about 340,000 extra votes in the 2010 U.S. election, according to a paper published in September in Nature. Facebook is also working with the suicide prevention group SAVE.org to boost research into the mindset of people who harm themselves.