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Fall 2012

Facebook Phenom

Date: September 1, 2012

Surgeon Andrew Cameron (pictured) teamed up with Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg to go viral with organ donation.
Surgeon Andrew Cameron (pictured) teamed up with Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg to go viral with organ donation.

In medicine, viruses usually are a bad thing.  When a new, potentially lifesaving idea goes viral on the Internet, however, that’s something else.

Just ask Andrew Cameron ’98, surgical director of Hopkins’ liver transplant program, and Sheryl Sandberg, a former undergraduate classmate of Cameron’s at Harvard, who now is chief operating officer of Facebook.

When Cameron and Sandberg attended their 20th Harvard reunion in 2011, they got to talking. Five years before, Sandberg had read an alumni magazine profile of Cameron in which he described the anguish that transplant surgeons feel when they can’t do anything to help patients who die because of the chronic, critical shortage of donated organs in the U.S.

At the time Sandberg read that article in 2006, Facebook was only two years old—but by 2011 it had become an Internet social networking behemoth with millions of subscribers.  As Cameron and she talked—and brainstormed—at their college reunion, they reached a joint epiphany. “Doctors save lives one person at a time,” recalls Cameron, an associate professor of surgery. “Sheryl is able to reach people millions at a time. We have a public health problem that really just needs education, communication, and discussion.”

Now Facebook is providing it. Since May 1, Facebook users have been able to share their organ donor status with friends, family—and the world—as they do other basic information. The information is part of the site’s new Timeline feature, which asks users to share stories and photographs.

Facebook also is making it easier for its members to obtain information about organ donation—simultaneously dispelling myths and misperceptions—and is providing links to state databases where users can make their desire to donate their organs official, just as they can do when getting their driver’s license.

Since the launch, the results of the Facebook organ donation initiative have been phenomenal, boosting the nationwide increase in registered donors by a staggering 1,183 percent in its first week, says Cameron. “Maryland had an average of 10 donors per day prior to the Facebook initiative,” he says. “In the first week after it was launched, Maryland had 781 new donors sign up,” reflecting the nationwide trend. A month later, the donor registration rates still were elevated, he adds.

This is a welcome development for the more than 114,000 people requiring new livers, hearts, kidneys, and other organs throughout the U.S. One of those individuals dies every four hours while waiting for a transplant. Although the need for organ donation continues to increase, the rate of donation over the past 20 years has been almost flat, despite widespread public campaigns.

The Hopkins liver transplant program that Cameron heads is one of the most forward-looking, evidence-based ones in the nation.  This year, he and his surgical colleagues will perform approximately 50 liver transplants. “Getting people to donate their organs has been an intractable public health problem,” Cameron says. “It stands in contrast to other public health campaigns such as seat belts or drunk driving, which have major impacts. If we succeed on Facebook with organ donation, it could be a model for how to use of-the-moment social media to solve important medical issues.”

Among these is the need for healthy individuals to donate a piece of their liver, rather than designate their liver for use after their death.  Cameron says his program is “interested in using social media in novel ways” to facilitate living donor transplants, too. 

                                                            Neil A. Grauer