Addressing Disparities in Organ Transplantation: A Call for Equitable Healthcare


Organ transplantation has revolutionized modern medicine, offering a beacon of hope for individuals battling end-stage organ failure. At the same time, it is intricately entwined with legal and policy frameworks governing procurement, allocation, and ethical considerations. From national regulations to international collaborations, addressing healthcare disparities and combating systemic injustices are vital to providing equal access to lifesaving procedures. By advocating for policies grounded in principles of justice, compassion, and human dignity, GLI strives to advance the field toward greater effectiveness and ethical integrity. In honor of April being National Donate Life Month, a month dedicated to encouraging Americans to register as organ, eye, and tissue donors, read on to unravel the intricate web of disparities surrounding organ transplantation, examining their deep-seated origins and advocating for transformative reforms in healthcare policies and practices.

Understanding Disparities 

Disparities in organ transplantation manifest along lines of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geographic location. The following disparities underscore systemic inequalities ingrained within healthcare systems, demanding urgent attention.

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Community Group Access Barrier Statistics
Asian Asian candidates awaiting transplant represent 8.5 percent of the total, yet they comprised only 3.1 percent of organ donors in 2020
Black Encounter delays in organ transplantation, exacerbated by racially biased assessments. If transplant rates were equal nationwide, approximately 430 more Black individuals could have been granted liver transplants between 2018 and 2021.
Hispanic In 2020, about 69 percent of organs retrieved from Hispanic patients were from deceased donors, which has worse health outcomes compared to living donations.
Individuals with limited literacy In a study of all solid organ transplant candidates, patients with limited reading or math ability and patients with cognitive impairment showed a decreased likelihood of being enlisted for transplantation and more prone to being removed from the listing or missing pre-listing appointments.
Native Americans Nearly three times less likely than white individuals to secure a spot for liver transplantation. Despite bearing the highest mortality rates from liver disease.
Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders The number of organ transplants conducted on Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders in 2020 equaled only 25 percent of those currently awaiting a transplant. The number performed on whites was almost twice as high at 48.8 percent of the number currently waiting.
Rural Populations
Despite similar MELD scores, individuals from rural areas face additional health issues, resulting in significantly higher sickness and mortality rates compared to those in urban areas, as noted by Jayme Locke, transplantation director at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Disparities in Access

Marginalized communities encounter a myriad of barriers on their journey to transplantation. Financial constraints and insurance disparities penalize economically disadvantaged individuals, exacerbating inequities in access. As Donna Cryer, CEO of GLI stated in a recent article highlighting the record number of organs being wasted due to changes in liver transplant rules and regulations, “being poor penalizes people.” Moreover, cultural and language barriers alienate communities from essential healthcare services. The poor access to inpatient treatment for alcoholism further heightens disparities, as end-stage liver disease devastates Native American communities. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “[l]ate referral to liver specialists has been identified as a major factor contributing to disproportionately low rates of liver transplantation among black individuals, despite the higher prevalence of end-stage liver disease among this racial group compared to others.” This delay in referral may lead to missed opportunities for transplantation and worsened health outcomes for Black individuals with end-stage liver disease – and this is the case for many other minority populations. Lack of awareness about organ donation widens the gap, perpetuating disparities in access to transplantation. Furthermore, new medicare restrictions threaten the lives of organ transplant recipients by limiting access to essential blood tests for detecting early signs of organ rejection, disproportionately affecting underserved communities. The Health Equity in Transplantation Coalition is advocating for the restoration and protection of access to these critical non-invasive tests. Addressing these barriers is paramount to ensuring equitable healthcare for all.

Future Directions

To confront disparities head-on, concerted efforts are imperative on multiple fronts. Research must prioritize understanding the root causes and impacts of disparities, which will then guide evidence-based interventions. Lisa McElroy states that “by not having the data organized and not being able to review it, not having that information to learn from, we have left the transplant selection process unstructured and as such vulnerable to institutional and individual bias.” Stressing the importance of research and data-driven approaches to mitigate bias in the transplant selection process. Policy recommendations should aim to dismantle systemic barriers and foster inclusivity in organ allocation. Strategies for improving organ donation rates must be implemented, coupled with comprehensive education campaigns to raise awareness. Only through collaborative action can we pave the path toward equitable access to transplantation.

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In the realm of organ transplantation, disparities persist as a glaring stain on the fabric of healthcare. Yet, amidst the challenges lies an opportunity for transformative change. Stakeholders across the healthcare spectrum must initiate a call for action, championing policies grounded in justice and compassion. By dismantling barriers, amplifying marginalized voices, and fostering a culture of equity, we can realize the vision of a healthcare system where every individual, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or geographic location, has equal access to life-saving transplantation. According to Melissa Dickerson, a recent guest on GLI’s weekly educational show, GLI LIVE, real change in the organ procurement and transplantation process will require bipartisanship, accountability from organ procurement organizations, and impactful personal stories that remind political leaders of the true meaning behind the policy changes; all while remembering that there is always work to be done. Together, let us embark on this journey toward a future where organ transplantation knows no boundaries, and every life is valued with dignity and respect.