Can Facebook Help You Find a Kidney?

Right now, as I write this, 116,324 people are fighting for their lives, waiting in suspense.1 These are the people languishing on the organ donation waiting list, hoping desperately that they can receive a precious organ that will save their lives.  With the paltry sum of 3,493 living donor transplants and 13,093 deceased donor transplants performed this year to date, chances are that many of these patients will never clear the list.1

facebookThe lack of organ donors is not a new issue, and people have been growing increasingly desperate to find ways to encourage more people to register as donors, most of which have not achieved an inordinate amount of success.  The newest strategy turns to a method that we all know and love: Facebook.  On May 1, 2012, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg announced that the social media giant now gave you the opportunity to add organ donor status to your timeline.  If you are not a registered organ donor, you can follow links directly from that page to sign up.2 The idea behind this is to encourage people to proudly display the fact that they are organ donors, and through this, to encourage others to register as well.

The initial response was overwhelming: 100,000 Facebook users declared that they were organ donors, 33,000 of whom were newly registered.3 All of the hype and media attention surrounding the addition had spurred thousands of people to act.  However, according to NPR, those high numbers of newly registered organ donors went back down to their pre-Facebook announcement levels as soon as the publicity died down.4 This is rather unsurprising, given the short public attention span for new phenomena.  Even though the Facebook setting is a way to publicly declare one’s support for organ donation, this personal display isn’t exactly a dynamic way to encourage others to donate.  In addition, this setting only applies to people who have registered to be organ donors in case of death, with no account for any sort of living organ donation.  Since the most common organ needed by far is a kidney (often obtained through living organ donation), this poses a rather serious problem.1

While Facebook’s public attempt to spur organ donors can be seen as mildly disappointing, many individuals have found success through another pathway.  A simple Facebook search for “kidney for” produces hundreds of pages of people seeking donors for themselves and loved ones over the Internet.  According to a study from Loyola Medical Center, which studied 91 Facebook pages for people from ages 2-69, 12% received a kidney for transplant, and 30% reported that potential donors had come forward. Facebook pages for organ donation can be incredibly effective because of the powerful emotional appeals, and it’s no surprise that pages requesting organs for children are the most responded to.5 As a last resort, appealing to potential donors via social media can be a worthwhile attempt, with a decent chance at success.  However, attempting to find or donate an organ via Facebook comes with a fair share of risk, as well.

To begin with, many feel that Facebook doesn’t offer enough information about organ donation to enable people to be properly informed.  When going to register as an organ donor via Facebook, all that’s shown is a link to the actual registration itself.  In order to find any other information, potential donors would have to actively seek it out.  Since this setting only applies to organ donation after death in the first place, it’s not as important as the live donor appeals on Facebook pages.  According to the Loyola study, only 5% of the kidney donation pages studied mentioned the risks associated with donation.1 This problem is far more serious, since it’s fairly easy to sign up to test as a donor in a moment of emotional sympathy, only to regret it in light of the potential risks.  A scenario such as this is unfortunate not only for the donor, who might be a match, but also for the patient, who may have hope taken away from him or her.

Perhaps the most serious problem with social media and organ donation is the number of pages offering to sell organs to those in need, a practice that is illegal in the United States.  A Facebook search for “kidney sell” turned up several pages offering to sell kidneys, most from third-world countries.  Naturally, this raises several issues.  Firstly, a black-market organ trade could mean some sort of illegal exploitation in the country of origin, not to mention the possibility that the organs could be tainted.  Secondly, there’s always the possibility that a desperate family could be taken in by a scam via one of these pages.  Both of these concerns pose serious ethical problems, and both add a rather perilous dimension to seeking out organs over social media.

The lack of organ donors today poses a serious problem, and it’s one that has no clear solution.  While social media does seem to provide a somewhat promising solution, responses so far have been lukewarm, and it seems unlikely that Facebook can solve our donor deficit.


  1. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.  2012. “Data.” Last modified October 26.  Accessed November 3, 2012.
  2. Sandberg, Sheryl and Zuckerberg, Mark.  2012.  “Organ Donation: Friends Saving Lives.”  Facebook Newsroom, May 1.
  3. O’Reilly, Kevin B.  2012.  “Transplant experts question impact of Facebook’s organ-donor registration push.”  American Medical News, May 28.
  4. Schultz, David.  2012.  “The ‘Facebook Effect’ on Organ Donation.”  NPR Shots, September 20.
  5. Greenemeier, Larry.  2012.  “Insides Trading: What Impact Will Facebook Have on Organ Donations?Scientific American, May 29.  Accessed November 3, 2012.
  6. Image credit (Creative Commons): McGowan, West. 2010.  “Facebook.” Flickr, June 11.

Katherine Oosterbaan is a first-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in Biology and Chemistry. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.