Transplant Surgeons Don't Always Tell Patients About Organ Quality

Scott's case is an example of this type of risk assessment. Though using a smoker's lungs "sounds outrageous to the lay public," says Cronin, research shows that in certain cases, a smoker's lung is suitable, especially considering that 20 to 30 percent of lung transplant patients will die waiting for a lung to become available.

"Smoking alone is not considered a reason to reject the lungs for donation," agrees Dr. Andrew Chang, surgical director of University of Michigan's Lung Transplant Program. "Data suggest[s] that history of smoking alone does not lead to worse outcomes."

And Scott's pneumonia isn't necessarily related to the fact that her donor was a smoker:

Patients with cystic fibrosis who undergo lung transplants "have a very high rate of pneumonia after transplant, that's the primary cause of death after transplant because these patients have many infections before the transplant," says Cronin.

It's a matter of balancing risk and benefit, says Chang. "It probably would be considered equally tragic had the patient died of her cystic fibrosis because of a lack of available donor lungs."

What's more, "many…patients [and their] families will not be able to make an informed decision if they are informed in the early morning hours that a lung is available, but the donor has history of A, B, or C," he says.

This is not to say that Scott and her family shouldn't have been informed of her donor's smoking habits, Chang said, only that it might have been difficult for them to know how to assess the information in the heat of the moment.

Waitlist Education for Patients?

Though patients and their families may not be naturally equipped to gauge how risky is too risky with less-than-ideal donor organs, that doesn't mean that they have to be kept in the dark, says Volk.

It's not that patients can't be informed, he says, it's that they need to be informed early in the process, when they first go on the waiting list, and they need to be informed in a way that they can understand.

Chang agrees: "[It] is of the utmost importance that patients" realize the risks at the beginning of the process, when they have time to digest the information."

While surgeons have to inform patients if there is an above-average risk of disease transmission with an organ, there is currently no standard of care to inform patients about other risks the organ might have, such as whether the donor was a smoker, Volk says.

"I think it is incumbent upon us as physicians to communicate these issues," Volk says, conceding that doctor-patient communication is notoriously problematic.

Research has shown that telling patients about their condition verbally does not work, he says, and that patients don't generally grasp numbers and percentages when being told about their risks.

"In general, doctors do not do a good job of translating medicalese into terms that [patients] can understand," Volk said. "That's why we need education tools to help doctors to better communicate."

Through his research, Volk hopes to figure out how these tools might help doctors and transplant patients alike.

To learn more about how to become an organ donor, visit the U.S. government's official donation website.

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