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New tax-form check box boosts Michigan organ donor registry

State Rep. Natalie Price is serving her first term representing the 5th House District, which consists of portions of Oakland County and Wayne County. 

State Rep. Natalie Price is serving her first term representing the 5th House District, which consists of portions of Oakland County and Wayne County. 

Michigan House of Representatives

LANSING – Being asked if our organs can be reused after we die can feel morbid.

But legislators, organ donation advocates and researchers assert that asking more people that question — and educating them about what happens if they agree — has important positive public health implications.

The Secretary of State’s Office says 57% of Michigan residents are registered organ donors, and 2,500 are on the waiting list for organ transplants. 

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Rep. Natalie Price, D–Berkley, was a co-sponsor of the “Check Your Heart” legislation passed last year. It made Michigan the first state to allow residents to become organ donors by checking a box on their income tax form. 

Through the first three months of this year, 6,166 people newly registered as donors by answering the prompt on their tax form, according to the Department of Treasury.

That’s a step in the right direction following the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw the rate of new organ donor registrants drop each year, Price said. 

“Our Secretary of State did such an amazing job offering services to our residents virtually, online” during the pandemic, Price said. “An unintended consequence, though, is that less people were being prompted at the Secretary of State office to see if they wanted to become an organ donor.”

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A provision in the legislation ensures that information about people registering as donors would be kept secure and confidential, Price said. 

“That’s where I had the most misinformation, people asking, ‘If I check this box, is this information going to be used inappropriately?’” Price said. “Is it going to be sold? Is it going to impact my health care records?”

“This bill made it crystal clear. It ensured that personal information cannot be sold,” she said.

“It will be maintained to prevent any data leaks or identity theft and will only be available to trusted departments who have a clear record of protecting people’s personal and financial information,” she said.

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But asking people to join the donor registry is only one piece of the puzzle, said Patrick Wells-O’Brien, the vice president of communications for Gift of Life Michigan. 

Gift of Life Michigan, headquartered in Ann Arbor, is the state’s federally designated organ, eye and tissue donation program.

Only 21% of new drivers in Michigan register as organ donors, an “abysmally” low rate compared with nearby states like Ohio and Illinois, whose rate is double that, Wells-O’Brien said.

The reason for that discrepancy, Wells-O’Brien said, is that Ohio and Illinois mandate organ donation education for all 9th-grade public school students but Michigan doesn’t.

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That means teenagers in those states learn about organ donation by the time they go for their driver’s permit and are asked to join the registry, he said. 

“We don’t think Michigan teenagers are less generous than Ohio and Illinois,” Wells-O’Brien said. “We think they just aren’t educated.”

A pending bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Felicia Brabec, D-Pittsfield Township, would mandate organ donation education for Michigan 9th graders.

“In schools, that’s where we’re teaching kids critical thinking,” Brabec said. “We give them information. We help them decipher information and then come up with a decision that they can back with that factual information.

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“And to me, being able to give students information before they’re asked this question just makes good sense,” she said.

Cosponsors include Reps. Kimberly Edwards, D–Eastpointe, Rachel Hood, D–Grand Rapids, and Stephanie Young, D–Detroit. The bill is pending in the House Education Committee.

Brian Quick, a communications and health sciences researcher at the University of Illinois, is exploring alternative ways to educate teenagers about organ donation.

Organ donation became important to Quick while in high school, when his dad was placed on the organ transplant waiting list.

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“Watching his health deteriorate, coupled with the uncertainty of whether or not he would receive a lifesaving transplant, conveyed to me at an early age the need for awareness around this important topic,” Quick said.

A recent study he published tested the effectiveness of an interactive online organ donation curriculum. It allowed driver education students in Michigan and Ohio to select a virtual car and complete educational games intended to increase their engagement in the curriculum. 

“The use of interactive games and student choice in navigating through an interactive educational program has demonstrated its effectiveness within a host of contexts,” Quick said. “We wanted to see if it would work within the context of organ donation education efforts aimed at driver education students.”

The curriculum also allowed students to select from a variety of videos about successful organ donation narratives.

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“Research suggests stories from people of similar backgrounds (for example, age, race) result in greater exposure and are more likely to be effective,” Quick said. “For this particular study, we highlighted recipient stories of teens across various racial backgrounds.”

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It appeared in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Medicine

Anna Harden

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