Monday, August 14, 2006

The Organ Shortage



Newspaper ads on every college campus beckon cash-strapped students to sell their plasma, sperm, or eggs to the appropriate medical intermediaries. It's Adam Smith's invisible hand at work: People need plasma for blood transfusions; students with excess plasma need cash. Plasma banks facilitate the transaction and everyone's better off.

The enterprising student will wonder whether he can collect on other spare parts--say, a kidney. He cannot. The sale of human organs, whether it benefits a living kidney donor or the family members of a recently deceased heart donor, is illegal in the United States. Why, asks the latest Freakonomics column, is selling a kidney illegal in a country where thousands of people die each year waiting for kidney transplants? Read the column to see what Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt have to say about the organ shortage.


1. Suppose the graph above represents a market for transplantable kidneys from live donors. Under current law, the price of a kidney is restricted to zero. At a zero price, 15,000 people (most likely friends and family of the recipients) supply a kidney to eligible patients each year. What's the shortage of kidneys at a zero price?

2. Beyond the 15,000 charitable donors our hypothetical supply curve takes a more familiar, upward-sloping shape. Each point on the supply curve represents the seller's cost of providing a transplantable kidney. According to Dubner and Levitt, what are some of the costs that influence the supply decisions of living kidney donors? (Think about forgone wages, medical risks, and the fact that supplying a kidney is a one-time event.)

3. In our hypothetical market for kidneys shown in the graph, what price clears the transplantable kidney market? (See an actual economic estimate of kidney prices in this paper by Gary Becker and Julio Jorge Elias.) Notice that closing the kidney shortage with a free market adds to the cost of a transplant (already upwards of $200,000). Might the additional cost of procuring a kidney price some patients out of the market altogether? That is, would an increase in the price of a transplant reduce the quantity of transplants demanded? Do you think the quantity of transplants demanded is sensitive or insensitive to price (is the price elasticity of demand for transplants perfectly inelastic)?

4. If you're like most normal people, the prospect of a market for kidneys raises all kinds of moral and ethical questions. According to the column, Alvin Roth helped devise a program that uses incentives to elicit organ donations from strangers, but stops short of a free market for organs. How does the New England Program for Kidney Exchange align the incentives of non-related donors and recipients without monetary incentives?

5. Kidneys from living donors are preferable from a medical perspective, but usable organs from the recently deceased are important as well. Of course, doctors can't just go around harvesting organs every time someone dies. Americans, usually at the Department of Motor Vehicles, have to sign-up if they wish to donate usable organs upon death. What would happen to the organ shortage in the United States if all Americans were donors by default?

Check out the Freakonomics website for more about creative solutions to the organ shortage.

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