UNOS Proposes a New Kidney Allocation System

By Nikola Biller Andorno

The Kidney Transplantation Committee of the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN)/United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) has put forward a proposal that would substantially revise the existing national allocation system for kidneys from deceased donors. It would also dissolve alternate local kidney allocation systems, which were put in place to study various allocation methods, some of which have been incorporated into the new proposal.

The proposal contains a number of provisions. Whereas the current allocation system is focused on the time a patient has been on the waiting list for a kidney, the new proposal suggests a tiered system: The 20% of kidneys that are ranked highest with regard to the likely duration of functioning once transplanted will be matched with the 20% of candidate recipients who are expected to have the longest time to benefit from a transplant. The logic behind this suggestion – like many others driving health policy considerations these days – is an attempt to maximize utility. Although the attempt to extract the most benefit out of a precious, scarce resource is certainly in keeping with good stewardship, the proposal raises concerns about fairness: What about patients who have a lower life expectancy due to age, disability, coexisting conditions, or socioeconomic status? Will they be deprioritized, with an increased risk of either dying before they get a transplant or of receiving a transplant that may not last for long? This would mean a departure from current policy, which focuses on waiting time, and it would also diverge from policies for other organs, such as livers, in which urgency is of primary concern and very sick patients are prioritized. On the other hand, stratifying organs for transplantation is not entirely new: in an attempt to reduce the number of discarded organs, several European countries have established so-called ‘old-to-old’ programs, which match the kidneys of donors 65 years of age or older with recipients of a similar age.

At the same time, the OPTN/UNOS proposal aims to promote equality of opportunity for the remaining 80% of potential recipients, by calculating their waiting time from the onset of end-stage kidney failure rather than from the date when they were added to the waiting list and by correcting for biological factors such as uncommon blood type or high immune-system sensitivity.

The proposal can be expected to undergo careful scrutiny by the different stakeholders. There is a period for public comment running through December 14, 2012. Have a look at and contribute to the debate.

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