US counts millionth organ transplant while pushing for more

Sep 9, 2022, 3:45 PM
FILE (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)...
FILE (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The U.S. counted its millionth organ transplant on Friday, a milestone that comes at a critical time for Americans still desperately waiting for that chance at survival.

It took decades from the first success — a kidney in 1954 — to transplant 1 million organs, and officials can’t reveal if this latest was a kidney, too, or some other organ. But advocates opened a new campaign to speed the next million transplants by encouraging more people to register as organ donors.

Yet the nation’s transplant system is at a crossroads. More people than ever are getting new organs — a record 41,356 last year alone. At the same time, critics blast the system for policies and outright mistakes that waste organs and cost lives.

The anger boiled over last month in a Senate committee hearing where lawmakers blamed the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit that holds a government contract to run the transplant system, for cumbersome organ-tracking and poor oversight.

“This is sitting on your hands while people die,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, told the organization’s chief executive as she and other senators suggested UNOS should be replaced.

UNOS continually takes steps to improve organ supply and equity and won’t be satisfied until everyone who needs a transplant gets one, CEO Brian Shepard responded.

Other experts say the fireworks are a distraction from work already underway.

“Everybody would like the system to be better,” said Renee Landers, a Suffolk University health law expert who, as part of an independent scientific advisory panel to the government, co-authored a blueprint for change earlier this year.

That blueprint, from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, sets a five-year deadline for improving every part of the complex transplant system — including the groups that collect organs from deceased donors, transplant centers that decide which ones to use, and the government agencies that regulate both.

“Focusing on only one aspect is actually not going to achieve” that goal, Landers said. “There are so many other pieces that have to fall into place.”

In the U.S., more than 400,000 people are living with functioning transplanted organs, UNOS said Friday. For all the lives saved each year, more than 105,000 people are on the national list still waiting for a new kidney, liver, heart or other organ, and about 17 a day die waiting.

Too often potentially usable organs aren’t recovered from would-be donors and too many hospitals turn down less-than-perfect organs that might still offer a good outcome for the right patient, the National Academies report found.

Kidneys are the organ most in demand and nearly a quarter of those donated last year were discarded, refused by hospitals for a variety of reasons.

A Senate Finance Committee investigation turned up additional problems including testing failures that between 2008 and 2015 led to 249 transplant recipients developing diseases from donated organs, 70 of whom died. In other cases, organs being shipped from one hospital to another were lost in transit or delayed so long they weren’t usable.

While those kinds of errors should never happen, they are a small fraction of the tens of thousands of transplants performed over that time period.

Solutions to the more common problems — procuring more organs and making sure they’re used — are tougher but attempts are underway:

–Kidney transplants increased 16% last year — and by 23% among Black patients — attributed to a UNOS-ordered change in how organs are distributed that allows kidneys to be shipped to sicker patients further away rather than being offered first to hospitals near where they were donated.

–In July, UNOS told hospitals to quit using a certain formula to test kidney function that can underestimate Black patients’ need for a transplant and leave them waiting longer than similarly ill white patients.

–Some “organ procurement organizations,” or OPOs retrieve organs from deceased donors at far higher rates than others. Medicare this year finalized new rules that require improvement or the low performers could be shut down in 2026.

—OPOs are reluctant to retrieve less-than-perfect organs that they know nearby hospitals won’t accept. Some hospitals may always refuse kidneys from donors over 70 or diabetics, for example. But soon, transplant centers’ kidney acceptance rates will be tracked as a new quality measure.

To get ready, dozens of hospitals are using new computer filters to opt out of even receiving offers they don’t intend to accept. Skipping them could allow those offers to more quickly reach places like Yale University’s transplant center — known for success with less-than-perfect kidneys — before the organs sit on ice too long to be usable.

“You can’t criticize OPOs for not recovering organs if you’re not beginning to hold transplant programs accountable for the decisions they make,” said kidney specialist Dr. Richard Formica, Yale’s transplant medicine director. “We have to come up with ways to incentivize people to change their behaviors.”


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

National News

Associated Press

CDC drops traveler health notices for individual countries

The CDC is doing away with notices about the COVID-19 risk of visiting specific countries.
1 day ago
WILMINGTON, NC - SEPTEMBER 23: Former President Donald Trump arrives at a Save America Rally at the...
Associated Press

Trump files $475 million defamation lawsuit against CNN

Former President Donald Trump has gone to court against CNN, a familiar target when he was president.
1 day ago
Search crews in Florida....
Mike Anderson

Rescue teams continue to find residents effected by Hurricane Ian

Search teams are helping oversee FEMA's efforts to search for those survivors, which is no easy task.
1 day ago
FILE photo...
REBECCA BOONE Associated Press

Idaho ordered to pay $2.5M to transgender inmate for legal fees

A federal judge has ordered Idaho and its prison medical care provider to pay more than $2.5 million in legal fees to a transgender inmate who sued after she was denied gender confirmation surgery.
1 day ago
surveillance image of possible shooter...
Associated Press

Killings of 5 men in California are related, police say

Rewards totaling $85,000 have been offered for information leading to an arrest in five fatal shootings since July in Stockton, California, that investigators believe are related.
1 day ago
OREM, UT - FEBRUARY 21: A bump stock is installed on an AK-47 at Good Guys Gun and Range on Februar...
Associated Press

Supreme Court rejects bump stock ban cases, one from Utahn

The Supreme Court says it won't take up two cases that involved challenges to a ban enacted during the Trump administration on bump stocks. Those are the gun attachments that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire rapidly like machine guns.
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Hand turning a thermostat knob to increase savings by decreasing energy consumption. Composite imag...
Lighting Design

5 Lighting Tips to Save Energy and Money in Your Home

Advances in lighting technology make it easier to use smart features to cut costs. Read for tips to save energy by using different lighting strategies in your home.
Portrait of smiling practitioner with multi-ethnic senior people...
Summit Vista

How retirement communities help with healthy aging

There are many benefits that retirement communities contribute to healthy aging. Learn more about how it can enhance your life, or the life of your loved ones.
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Ask these questions before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Cloud storage technology with 3d rendering drawer with files in cloud...
PC Laptops

How backing up your computer can help you relieve stress

Don't wait for something bad to happen before backing up your computer. Learn how to protect your data before disaster strikes.
young woman with stickers on laptop computer...
Les Olson

7 ways print marketing materials can boost your business

Custom print marketing materials are a great way to leave an impression on clients or customers. Read for a few ideas to spread the word about your product or company.
young woman throwing clothes to organize a walk in closet...
Lighting Design

How to organize your walk-in closet | 7 easy tips to streamline your storage today

Read our tips to learn how to organize your walk-in closet for more storage space. These seven easy tips can help you get the most out of your space.
US counts millionth organ transplant while pushing for more