By Lauran Neergaard
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.
“I could have withered away here,” said William Sherbert, 47, who temporarily moved from California to Florida for a faster transplant.
When hepatitis B caused liver failure, Sherbert spent a year awaiting a transplant from a Los Angeles hospital. He was nowhere near the top of the transplant list when his frantic partner finally unraveled how the system works.
Patients who have the highest MELD score — a ranking, based on laboratory tests, that predicts their risk of death — move up the waiting list. United Network for Organ Sharing figures show that in three regions stretching from Michigan and Ohio down to Florida, adults receiving new livers over the past two years had median MELD scores of 22 to 23. But in the region that includes California, recipients were far sicker, with a median score of 33. Nearly as tough were regions that include New York.