The nation's organ-transplant network is considering giving younger, healthier people preference over older, sicker patients for the best kidneys.
Instead of giving priority primarily to patients who have been on the waiting list longest, the new rules would match recipients and organs to a greater extent based on factors such as age and health to try to maximize the number of years provided by each kidney — the most sought-after organ for transplants.
"We're trying to best utilize the gift of the donated organ," said Kenneth Andreoni, an associate professor of surgery at Ohio State University who chairs the committee that is reviewing the system for the United Network for Organ Sharing.
The ethically fraught potential changes, which would be part of the most comprehensive overhaul of the system in 25 years, are being welcomed by some bioethicists, transplant surgeons and patient representatives as a step toward improving kidney distribution. But some worry that the changes could inadvertently skew the pool of available organs by altering the pattern of people making living donations. Some also complain that the new system would unfairly penalize middle- aged and elderly patients at a time when the overall population is getting older.
"The best kidneys are from young adults under age 35 years. Nobody over the age of 50 will ever see one of those," said Lainie Friedman Ross, a University of Chicago bioethicist and physician. "There are a lot of people in their 50s and 60s who, with a properly functioning kidney, could have 20 or more years of life. We're making it harder for them to get a kidney that will function for that length of time. It's age discrimination."
More than 110,000 Americans are listed as waiting for organs, including more than 87,000 who need kidneys. Only about 17,000 Americans get kidneys each year, and more than 4,600 die because they did not get one in time.
"It's a big shift," said Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist. "For a long time, the whole program has been oriented toward waiting-list time. This is moving it away from a save-the-sickest strategy to trying to get a greater yield in terms of years of life saved."
If adopted, the approach could have implications for other decisions about how to allocate scarce medical resources, such as expensive cancer drugs and ventilators during hurricanes and other emergencies, Caplan said.