Record Number of Organs Transplanted in '04

More than 27,000 human organs were transplanted last year, a record driven by a big jump in donations from the dead, the government said Tuesday.

Donations from the living — mostly kidneys — increased only slightly last year, but gifts from the dead soared by nearly 11 percent after years of stagnant growth. For the previous three years, living donors had outnumbered deceased donors.

There were 7,153 deceased donors in 2004, with an average of three organs transplanted from each.

At the same time, the number of living donors crept up by 2 percent to 6,965. Most living donors give a kidney, as people have two and only need one. Some give a slice of liver or lung, with each piece regenerating into a full organ.

Overall, the increase in donations led to 6 percent more transplants performed — 27,025 last year, the most on record in a single year. That was up from 25,461 in 2003.

"We haven't had this kind of good news in the past few years," said Joyce Somsak of the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services agency that oversees transplantation issues.

Still, nearly 88,000 people are on the waiting list for a transplant, and some 6,200 died last year waiting.

Explaining the increase in donation, Somsak and others credited an HHS initiative to share successful techniques among hospitals and organ procurement organizations that handle donation logistics and work with donor families.

This "breakthrough collaborative" involved some 200 U.S. hospitals where the greatest number of potential organ donors die.

Officials from organ banks and hospitals from around the country met at conferences to trade ideas and share research about the most successful methods of increasing donation. The goal is to convert 75 percent of the potential donors into actual donors — a big increase from current rates that hover at or below 50 percent at many hospitals.

"The new battle cry is `every donor, every organ, every time,'" said Dr. Robert Metzger, the medical director for a Florida organ bank and president of the United Network for Organ Sharing, which runs the organ matching system under an HHS contract.

Metzger pointed to increased interest in donation after cardiac death — a more complicated procedure of harvesting organs (search) from people who die when their hearts stop beating. The traditional donor is on a ventilator but brain dead.

He said there is also more emphasis on increasing the number of organs that are used from each donor, which typically involves better management of hearts and lungs so the organs stay viable until transplantation.

HHS noted that the increase in donation was higher among hospitals participating in the collaborative — those hospitals saw donations increase 16 percent over 2003 — though donations were up in other hospitals, too.

Somsak said other ideas that are spreading around the country include basing transplant coordinators at hospitals to help spot potential donors early, employing blacks to approach black families about donation and Hispanic coordinators to talk with Hispanics, and approaching families with a positive attitude that assumes they will say yes to donation.

In the past, she said, coordinators would explain to families that donation is an option and ask if they'd thought about it, suggesting that it was OK to say yes or to say no. Now, she said, they say something like: "Most people, when they have the chance, really want to donate and this is an opportunity for this person to share a life."

The statistics highlighted by HHS on Tuesday were collected by the transplant network and will change as more hospitals file reports on 2004 cases.