There is a clear remedy for the growing shortage of organ donors, say Gary S. Becker and Julio J. Elias
In 2012, 95,000 American men, women and children were on the waiting list for new kidneys, the most commonly transplanted organ. Yet only about 16,500 kidney transplant operations were performed that year. Taking into account the number of people who die while waiting for a transplant, this implies an average wait of 4.5 years for a kidney transplant in the U.S.
The situation is far worse than it was just a decade ago, when nearly 54,000 people were on the waiting list, with an average wait of 2.9 years. For all the recent attention devoted to the health-care overhaul, the long and growing waiting times for tens of thousands of individuals who badly need organ transplants hasn't been addressed.
Finding a way to increase the supply of organs would reduce wait times and deaths, and it would greatly ease the suffering that many sick individuals now endure while they hope for a transplant. The most effective change, we believe, would be to provide compensation to people who give their organs—that is, we recommend establishing a market for organs.
Organ transplants are one of the extraordinary developments of modern science. They began in 1954 with a kidney transplant performed at Brigham & Women's hospital in Boston. But the practice only took off in the 1970s with the development of immunosuppressive drugs that could prevent the rejection of transplanted organs. Since then, the number of kidney and other organ transplants has grown rapidly, but not nearly as rapidly as the growth in the number of people with defective organs who need transplants. The result has been longer and longer delays to receive organs.
Many of those waiting for kidneys are on dialysis, and life expectancy while on dialysis isn't long. For example, people age 45 to 49 live, on average, eight additional years if they remain on dialysis, but they live an additional 23 years if they get a kidney transplant. That is why in 2012, almost 4,500 persons died while waiting for kidney transplants. Although some of those waiting would have died anyway, the great majority died because they were unable to replace their defective kidneys quickly enough.
The toll on those waiting for kidneys and on their families is enormous, from both greatly reduced life expectancy and the many hardships of being on dialysis. Most of those on dialysis cannot work, and the annual cost of dialysis averages about $80,000. The total cost over the average 4.5-year waiting period before receiving a kidney transplant is $350,000, which is much larger than the $150,000 cost of the transplant itself.
Individuals can live a normal life with only one kidney, so about 34% of all kidneys used in transplants come from live donors. The majority of transplant kidneys come from parents, children, siblings and other relatives of those who need transplants. The rest come from individuals who want to help those in need of transplants.
In recent years, kidney exchanges—in which pairs of living would-be donors and recipients who prove incompatible look for another pair or pairs of donors and recipients who would be compatible for transplants, cutting their wait time—have become more widespread. Although these exchanges have grown rapidly in the U.S. since 2005, they still account for only 9% of live donations and just 3% of all kidney donations, including after-death donations. The relatively minor role of exchanges in total donations isn't an accident, because exchanges are really a form of barter, and barter is always an inefficient way to arrange transactions.
Exhortations and other efforts to encourage more organ donations have failed to significantly close the large gap between supply and demand. For example, some countries use an implied consent approach, in which organs from cadavers are assumed to be…