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College Students Think Favorably, but Act Timidly about Organ Donation

June 6, 2005

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Only 11 percent of students surveyed at two universities in New York State have formally declared their intentions to become organ or tissue donors, a study conducted by researchers at the University at Buffalo has found.

However, 80 percent of students in the study indicated they would be receptive to learning more about the topic.

The study was conducted with the goal of determining the most effective ways to convince this population to sign organ-donation cards, or at least to consider the issue favorably and discuss it with family members.

Results of the research appear in the May issue of the Journal of Health Communication.

College students are considered an important target group because they are likely to be of higher economic status, which has been linked positively with intention to sign an organ donor card, said Thomas H. Feeley, Ph.D., lead author on the study.

In addition, college students primarily are young and healthy, making them appropriate donor candidates, he said, and as a group they engage in risky behavior, making them more likely to be potential donors.

“The study was quite exploratory and descriptive,” said Feeley, an associate professor of communication in the UB School of Informatics and a research assistant professor of family medicine in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“We wanted to find out where students stand on the issue, to know their intentions,” he said. “Most studies don’t ask people their intentions outright, but we did. What we found was quite provocative.”

The study involved a convenience sample of 271 students from UB and 231 students from the University at Albany. Participants completed a survey designed to collect several types of information: knowledge about organ and tissue donation; experience with donation; attitudes toward the issue; willingness to discuss it; intentions to sign a donor card, and behaviors and information sources related to donation.

Participants who had not signed a donor card were asked to state their reasons for not signing in an open-ended question.

Analysis showed participants averaged 6 out of 9 correct answers on the knowledge questions. Attitude toward donation was highly positive — 3.43 on a scale of 4 — and moderately positive toward intentions to donate (2.67) and willingness to discuss donation with family (3.00).

Only 57 (11 percent) of the 502 students had signed a donor card or checked the appropriate spot on their New York State driver’s license, results showed. Thirty-eight percent reported having a conversation about organ and tissue donation with their family. On level of information concerning the subject, students averaged 1.63 on a scale of 3, and named the media as their primary source of information on the issue.

Of the possible reasons for not wanting to donate, the most frequent response, cited by 28 percent, fell into the general category of “have not considered the topic.” Another 26 percent reported they intended to donate, but had not yet signed a donor card or indicated their wishes on their driver’s license. Fourteen percent indicated they did not want to donate their organs, but gave no reason.

Other reasons for not wanting to donate fell into the following groupings: emotional reasons, philosophical or religious reasons, not ready to decide, myth reasons, family objections, undecided and other.

Feeley said the information from the study indicates that information campaigns promoting organ donation directed toward college students should be aimed at two different audiences, using two different message appeals: one aimed at students with little information or incorrect information, focusing on awareness, knowledge and attitudes; and another directed toward students who are undecided or intend to sign a donor card or indicate their wish to be an organ donor on their driver’s license, but have not yet done so.

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