Communication Currents

Worksite Organ Donation Campaigns that Work

July 1, 2010
Health Communication

Communicating with the public about organ donation is difficult.  Most people don’t want to talk about death and many people feel “squeamish” when thinking about the process of organ transplantation. At the same time, more than 85% of Americans say that they would like to become organ donors after they die.  If this attitude were translated into action, many of the 108,000 people on the transplant waiting list would not die while waiting. In fact, nearly 7,000 people die each year because an organ was not available for a life-saving transplant. Perhaps not surprising is the fact that the diseases most likely to affect us and our loved ones such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are also among the leading causes for the need for organ transplants. Although organ donation doesn’t receive the attention in the news other health issues do, the fact is that organ transplantation has the potential to save the lives of our loved ones.

Figuring out where the disconnect lies between individuals’ support for organ donation and their lack of action has been the goal of a number of researchers since the 1980s.  Nationally, approximately 35% of Americans have joined an organ donor registry to ensure that after they die, their organs and tissue can save or enhance the lives of others.  Those who have joined a registry are often passionate about their commitment to donation.  The most common attitude among committed donors is “If I’m dead, I don’t need my organs any more.  Why wouldn’t I save someone else’s life if I could?”

There are many people, however, who are considerably more ambivalent.  Their reasons for not donating include very specific fears and misgivings including the belief that doctors won’t work as hard to save the life of an organ donor, suspicions that the allocation system for donated organs favors wealthy or famous people, and concerns about a black market for organs.

Morgan and her colleagues attempted to dispel these myths and misconceptions about donation (nearly all of which appear to be fueled by entertainment television programming) by creating two different types of worksite campaigns about organ donation.  They conducted the campaigns at 45 companies of different sizes and in different industries. Organizations were carefully assigned to experimental conditions to ensure that roughly equal numbers of large (over 500 employees) and medium sized organizations (between 100- 500 employees) were represented and that organizations of one type, such as manufacturing companies or pharmaceutical firms weren’t over-represented in one group or another. 

For the first type of campaign (“low-intensity”), they sent out brochures addressing myths about donation to all employees of 15 companies and included a postage-paid card employees could return if they wanted to join the registry.  In addition, posters were hung in break rooms and other gathering areas and email “blasts” were sent to all employees.  When possible, short articles about employees or local residents who had been affected by organ donation were published in company newsletters during the 10-week campaign period.

The second type of worksite campaign (“high intensity”) was conducted at an additional 15 companies and included all of the campaign elements as the first campaign but added one important element: on-site visits by volunteers and campaign staff members.  Several times over a 10-week period, they set up information tables in high-traffic areas such as cafeterias, main lobbies, and break rooms.  Volunteers passed out freebies (such as pens and sticky notes) and used the opportunity to ask employees if they had questions about donation and whether they wanted to join the registry.  These opportunities for interaction allowed volunteers (who were mostly transplant recipients) to share a bit of their personal stories about how organ donors saved their lives.  Donor family members were able to share a small part of their story, too, through the display of Donor Family Quilts.  Much like the AIDS Quilt, each panel of the quilt is made by a donor’s family or friends to commemorate their lives and often feature pictures, poems, and even small mementos.

The success of the two types of campaigns was evaluated by looking at changes in survey responses employees gave before the campaign and after the campaign about their attitudes and knowledge about organ donation as well as their intentions to register as potential donors.  In addition, actual donor registration rates from each company were compared.  Regardless of the type of outcome (actual behavior versus “self-report” survey responses), the worksites that received the on-site visits from staff and volunteers showed much greater improvements in donor registration rates than the worksites that received the low-intensity campaign or that received no campaign at all.  On average, about 11% of employees at high-intensity sites who had not already declared themselves as organ donors signed up on the registry, compared to just 1-2% of employees at control or low intensity worksites.

These results are important to people who want to encourage the public to join an organ donor registry because worksites are an excellent way to reach large numbers of people.  However, just dropping off boxes of brochures to have delivered to employees simply isn’t enough.  It takes the personal touch of on-site visits to create significant improvements in registry rates.  By “putting a face” on the issue of organ donation and creating opportunities for people to ask specific questions about donation, on-site visits allow people to feel more comfortable with the prospect of signing up to become potential donors.  Moreover, because worksites are communities, word of mouth helps to spread the message and creates the opportunity at on-site events for employees to model for others the act of joining the donor registry.

You can find out more about how to join the donor registry in your state by going to http://www.donatelife.net/CommitToDonation/

About the author (s)

Susan E. Morgan

Purdue University

Professor

Tyler R. Harrison

Purdue University

Associate Professor

Lisa V. Chewning

Pennsylvania State University

Assistant Professor

Mark Di Corcia

Indiana School of Medicine

Assistant Chair

LaShara Davis

Purdue University

Doctoral Candidate