Novel Program Aims to Boost Diversity in Transplant Field and Bridge Trust Gap in Organ Donation Among Communities of Color

Two Black medical students in an operating room

Last Updated on January 19, 2024 11:32 AM CST

A novel program is encouraging more Black and other minority doctors-to-be to get involved in the transplant field, increasing the trust of patients of color in organ donation.

Some students from Meharry Medical College spent their summer shadowing a donor agency, learning the complex steps involved in organ transplants, from finding eligible donors to matching organs with recipients.

During their experience, the students faced emotional moments in the operating room, such as witnessing a surgery where the donor had died before being wheeled in. The program emphasizes the importance of early exposure to the transplant field, providing hands-on experience and addressing the lack of diversity among transplant surgeons and specialists.

“There are very few transplant surgeons who look like me,” said Dr. James Hildreth, president of Meharry Medical College, which teamed with Tennessee Donor Services for the project — one of several by historically Black colleges and universities to tackle transplant inequity.

There still exists mistrust within minority communities towards the medical system, stemming from historical abuses like the Tuskegee experiment. The Meharry students aim to bridge this gap by dispelling myths about organ donation and educating their communities.

Despite record numbers of transplants in recent years, thousands still die waiting for organs, and Black Americans face disparities in accessing transplants. Black patients are over three times more likely than white people to experience kidney failure but encounter delays in being put on transplant lists and are less likely to receive organs from living donors.

The Meharry students’ experiences include witnessing the complexities of organ donation, from recovering organs to matching them with recipients. The program aims to diversify the transplant field, with only 5.5% of transplant surgeons and less than 7% of kidney specialists currently being Black. Overall, Black patients make up 28% of the waiting list for all organs but account for just about 16% of deceased donors. Increasing donor diversity also helps improve the odds of finding a good match.

The students also learn about the challenges in the donation process, with only about 1% of deaths qualifying for donation consideration. The program also seeks to address the mistrust and disparities in organ donation by providing early exposure to minority medical students, ultimately contributing to a more diverse and inclusive transplant field.

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