May 1, 2012 -- Facebook wants to make it easier for its nearly 1 billion members to sign up to become organ donors. In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced today the addition of a new tool on Facebook that will allow users to share their organ donor status with their friends.
Users can add that they are organ donors to their Facebook timeline, and share their story about when, where or why they decided to become donors. If a user is not already officially registered as an organ donor, the new feature gives them a link to the appropriate donor registry in their state.
The new tool lets Facebook users click a button on their timelines to indicate that they want to be organ donors in the event of their death. They can also post a status or video explaining why they made that decision.
Here's how the tool works:
Users can go to their timeline, click on "Life Event," select "Health and Wellness," and add the new option "choose Organ Donor." Then they can add where and when they registered and include a personal story, picture or video.
Zuckerberg told ABC News' Robin Roberts that the initiative aims to bring the power of social media to a problem that continues to plague organ transplantation -- too many people who need organs and not enough who donate.
"What we hope will happen is that by just having this simple tool, we think that people can really help spread awareness of organ donation and that they want to participate in this to their friends," Zuckerberg said. "That can be a big part of helping solve the crisis that's out there."
Currently, there are more than 114,000 Americans waiting for kidneys, livers, hearts and other vital organs that could save their lives, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. But only a small percentage of those patients actually find suitable donors and get the transplants they need. Just over 28,000 organ transplants were performed in 2011. Every day, an estimated 18 people die waiting for an organ transplant.
The problem is a familiar one to Dr. Andrew Cameron, a transplant surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and one of the inspirations for Facebook's new donor status option. He has witnessed the supply-and-demand problem that leaves many patients without the organs they desperately need.
Cameron, who graduated from Harvard College, wrote about the shortage of organs for transplant in his Harvard Reunion Class report, a book in which alumni can tell old friends what they've been doing since graduation. Cameron was about to go to his 15th reunion.
One of the former classmates who read Cameron's entry was his college friend Sheryl Sandberg, soon to be Facebook's chief operating officer.
"Well, fast forward to just under a year ago, at our 20th reunion, Sheryl was now COO at Facebook, and with this really powerful communication tool in hand, we crossed paths again," Cameron told ABC News. "She said, 'I remember what you wrote last time and I think Facebook can help with the problem of organ donation.'"
They talked about using the power of Facebook for communication to let people share their wish to be organ donors, just as they already share their birthdays, new jobs or what they had for lunch.
Surveys have shown that most Americans support organ donation, but only about 40 percent of the adult population register as organ donors. Cameron said he thinks the shortfall is the result of a communications problem that a button on a Facebook profile could help solve.
"I think it's possible that we will see an impact over the next couple of years, where we would imagine eliminating the transplant waiting list," Cameron told ABC News. "We've got 100,000 people waiting. Each donor can help three or four of those waiting. If we could do twice as well as we're doing now, if we could get another 10,000 donors a year, I think we could have that transplant waiting list down to almost nothing in three or four years. That would be a spectacular moment in medical history and in the history of public health."
The hope is that bringing a social aspect to organ donation will help people think carefully about their decision and share it with others.
"There have been so many public health campaigns to get people to sign up to be organ donors. Unfortunately, they just haven't been very successful," said ABC News' chief health and medical editor, Dr. Richard Besser. "This Facebook initiative is absolutely ingenious. Imagine what happens if signing up to be a donor goes viral and becomes a cool thing to do? Problem solved!"