Organ donation is not something the average college student spends much time thinking about, perhaps understandably so.
“They are young and healthy, and decisions related to untimely death should be distant from them,” said Thomas Feeley, PhD, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communications at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York.
Despite being vocal supporters of social causes, college students have not been active participants in organ donor registration. A social media campaign helped change that pattern, however, in a recent study published in the American Journal of Transplantation (2012;1:152-161).
The campaign had 20,421 website visitors; 4,473 Facebook members; 1,189 submitted YouTube videos, generating 164,000 views; 713 blog posts and comments; and 1,800 tweets, or Twitter postings. It motivated 19,623 people to go to a state's organ donor registration page, leading to 9,000 donor registrations.
“What surprised us was that social interactions and support had the second-greatest impact on both the support of organ donation and donor registration,” said principal researcher James W. Peltier, PhD, Professor of Marketing at the University of Wisconsin–-Whitewater, referring to the survey that informed the campaign's design. “This gives a solid cue of the importance of social media.”
Anthony M. D'Alessandro, MD, of the Department of Surgery at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, was the principal investigator. The study was funded by a two-year grant from the US Department of Health & Human Services.
Role of Social Interactions, Support
The authors employed the help of the Collegiate American Marketing Association (CAMA), with student members influencing the development of a questionnaire that was sent to approximately 8,500 CAMA students.
Based on the survey results, an 18-month social media campaign was designed, with CAMA initiating a viral communication process to spread the word about organ donation and encourage donor registration.
“We undertook an extensive exploratory research process to better understand potential cognitive, attitudinal, and social dimensions relevant to organ donor registration,” Dr. Peltier said.
“In addition to reviewing the literature, we first conducted key informant interviews and then conducted focus groups with CAMA leaders from Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. In total, we spoke with 317 individuals, and from there we were able to develop questions related to how students think, feel, and behave in an organ donor registration context.”
The final survey included questions addressing seven areas: awareness/knowledge about organ donation, acknowledgement of an organ and tissue demand-supply gap, concerns/fears with organ donation, altruism and benefits, social support, social relevance/impact, and viral support of causes.
Of the 8,500 CAMA students contacted, 1,802 members responded to the survey (21.2%), 69% of whom were female. Just over one-half (52.9%) of the respondents were registered organ donors.
All seven categories of the survey had a significant impact on organ donation support in the hypothesized direction, with donation benefits and altruism showing the largest impact, and social interactions/support coming in second. Neither gender nor class standing had a significant effect on students' support for organ donation.
In addition, six of the seven cognitive, attitudinal, and social variables had a significant effect on predicting donor registration status. Knowledge about organ donation had the greatest impact and, similar to the finding for organ donation support, social interactions/support came in second. Again, gender and class standing did not significantly influence the results.
“We found that the perceived benefits of organ donation had the greatest impact on the support for organ donation, while knowledge about how to register was most important for the behavioral model,” Dr. Peltier said.
Based on the results of this study, the project was awarded an additional two years of support from Donate Life America, the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, and the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater.
‘A Complex Process’
While the results may have been surprising, social media's burgeoning impact on youths who have grown up in the technology age is well-known, and the impact of social media on college students' communication is tangible.
“Given the changes in how people communicate with each other in the last decade and that current students have been raised in that environment, I congratulate the authors of this paper for really recognizing this and exploring it,” said Laura A. Siminoff, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Health at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.
“I think that probably it's the case that if you want an effective media campaign aimed at this generation of people, you have to go beyond traditional mass media and think about these types of social media that resonate with people in college today.”
Still, the success of a social media effort is not a given.
“Social media campaigns to promote pro-social causes, like donation, have great potential, but they don't all work,” Dr. Feeley said. “These authors and the grant team partnered with ambitious marketing students, and the result was positive.”
In terms of next steps, it would be useful to see how to reach minorities and whether the approach can be tailored to different types of students, such as those who might be more resistant to the idea of organ donation, Dr. Siminoff noted.
“People who are in the group that just went click and deleted the e-mail with the survey without opening it and reading it are very hard to reach,” she said.
Also, the study may have reached “some of the low-hanging fruit,” those students who had already been affected by donation, Dr. Siminoff added. Of the respondents, 25.1% indicated that they knew someone who died and had organs donated, 18.3% had a friend who needed a transplant, 18.1% had a family member who needed a transplant, and 6.9% knew someone who died while on a transplant waiting list.
“When we look at populations of people who were asked about organ donation, we see single-digit percentages of those who had experience with donation, so this is a bit of a biased sample,” Dr. Siminoff said. “This is probably the biggest weakness of the survey—how they could ameliorate that, I'm not really sure.”
There is still much to learn about the influence of social media on this population because, when push comes to shove, college students can be difficult to comprehend, Dr. Peltier said.
“Understanding what is on the mind of any person, let alone college students, is no easy task. In many cases, what people say and what they do are not the same.
“For example, most Americans support organ donation, yet nowhere near that many people actually register to be an organ donor. This is certainly a complex process, one that has many unknown answers to important questions.”