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Facebook users really 'liked' organ donor option

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TUESDAY, June 18 (HealthDay News) -- Adding an organ donation option to the average Facebook user's profile prompted a dramatic rise in potential donors, researchers report.

In the day after the initiative launched last year, there was a 21-fold increase in donor registrations across the United States, according to the study in the American Journal of Transplantation.

Transplant experts collaborated with Facebook to alter the "timeline" platform on the social media giant's site so that users could change their profile status to indicate "organ donor." When they did so, they were given a link to their state's official donor registry and their friends were sent a message about their new organ donor status, the researchers said.

"The short-term response was incredibly dramatic, unlike anything we had ever seen before in campaigns to increase the organ donation rate," study leader Dr. Andrew Cameron, an associate professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, said in a university news release.

"At the end of two weeks, the number of new organ donors was still climbing at twice the normal rate," he added.

On the first day of the initiative, there were more than 13,000 new registrations nationwide -- 21 times the normal daily average of 616. Increases ranged from about seven-fold in Michigan to nearly 109-fold in Georgia.

Registration rates remained elevated in the following 12 days but began to drop off after that. However, by the end of the study period, rates were still double the normal ones.

"The bump we saw did diminish over weeks, implying that more work is needed to assure sustainability or 'virality' in this case," Cameron noted in a journal news release.

According to background information from Hopkins, more than 118,000 Americans are currently on waiting lists for donor organs. The situation has gotten worse, not better: over the past two decades, donor numbers have been stagnant, while the need for donated organs has risen 10-fold. Each year, up to 10,000 people die with viable organs for transplant that cannot be used because the deceased did not give his or her consent.

Cameron, a transplant surgeon, said he got the idea for a Facebook link-up after discussing the issue with a fellow Harvard University classmate at their 20th college reunion in 2011. That former classmate happened to be current Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

The initiative began May 1, 2012, and on that day more than 57,000 Facebook users updated their profiles to share their organ donor status with others.

"This was the first [online] effort like this designed to mobilize people for a public health cause," Cameron said. "Now we want to build on that. Studying the response to the organ donor effort is the next step in the process of using social media for social good."

The long-term significance of this effort will be known only when the use of social media and social networks is examined in terms of its impact on the nation's organ supply, he added.

More information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more about organ donation.

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