WASHINGTON — Where you live can affect your chances of getting a liver transplant, and your risk of dying while waiting. The nation's transplant network says it's time to make the system fairer — and it may take a cue from how politicians redraw voting maps.
"Gerrymandering for the public good" is how Johns Hopkins University transplant surgeon Dr. Dorry Segev describes a proposal to change the map that governs how donated livers are distributed around the country.
The problem: Some areas have fewer donated organs, and higher demand for them, than others. The sickest patients go to the top of the waiting list. But the geographic variation means that someone in California, among the toughest places to get a new liver, waits longer and is a lot sicker before getting transplanted than someone in Ohio or Florida — if they survive long enough.
"This should not be happening," Segev said.
Segev is advising the United Network for Organ Sharing, which runs the transplant network, as its liver specialists consider the novel idea of "redistricting" how livers are allocated — redrawing the nation's 11 transplant regions based on the distribution and demand for donated organs, much like lawmakers set political districts based on the party voting histories of different areas.
The ultimate goal: "That your chance of dying without a liver transplant doesn't depend on your ZIP code," said Dr. John Roberts, transplant chief at the University of California, San Francisco.
The geographic disparity adds another hurdle to the already dire shortage of livers. Just 6,256 patients received a liver transplant last year, all but a few hundred from deceased donors. Nearly 16,000 people are awaiting a liver. About 1,500 people die waiting every year.
Desperate patients sometimes travel across the country to get on a shorter waiting list, if they can afford it or even know it's possible. The best-known example is the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who lived in California but in 2009 had a transplant in Memphis, Tenn., which at the time had one of the shortest waits. That's harder for the less wealthy to do.