More than 100,000 people in the US are waiting for a new kidney, but only 14,000 transplants were performed last year. Every year, 4,000 people die before a donor organ becomes available. The New York Times this week proposed increasing incentives for living donors, such as paying their travel expenses and compensating them for lost wages.
Some advocates go further, saying that living donors should receive tax credits or college tuition, the paper noted. But those proposals skirt the line of paying people for their organs—an idea suggested by the late Gary S. Becker in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece earlier this year, but one that violates current US law. The Times concluded: “Congress ought to hold hearings on the best ways to reduce the shortage and save more lives on the waiting list.”
Here’s another possible remedy. Chicago Booth's Bariş Ata and Rodney P. Parker examined the allocation system for kidneys run by the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit regulated by the federal government that allocates organs for transplant across the US.
They found that wait times vary dramatically across the country. In areas with shorter wait times, potential recipients are more likely to reject a lower-quality kidney and wait for the next one. The window for the kidney to remain viable is short—only 24 to 36 hours. Often, by the time doctors find a patient in another region who would be happy to take that kidney, it can no longer be used.
Based on their study of more than 75,000 deceased kidney donors and more than 100,000 actual or potential recipients, Ata and Parker found that if the poorest-quality 15 percent of kidneys were offered more broadly from the beginning—whether regionally or nationally—between 56 and 124 more kidneys would be transplanted every year, possibly extending the lives of patients who would otherwise die waiting.