US blood donation crisis: Millennials not keen on 'anonymous' act, 'want to know the impact they have on others', say experts

What started off as a civic duty-driven phenomenon has changed into more of an 'individual transformational impact'


                            US blood donation crisis: Millennials not keen on 'anonymous' act, 'want to know the impact they have on others', say experts

Earlier this month, on July 9, the American Red Cross issued an emergency need for eligible individuals of all blood types to come forward and donate blood. They said the blood donations were being distributed to hospitals faster than they were coming in, thereby jeopardizing lives that could potentially be saved. According to them, donation drives dwindled by 450 on the July 4 weekend, causing 17,000 fewer blood donations. 

Going by statistics, this situation is frightening. Someone needs blood every two seconds. Currently, in the U.S., 33 percent of hospitals have just a day's supply of blood on their shelves to handle the needs of their patients and zero hospitals have it for more than three days. The United States is heading towards a humungous crisis if the current blood donation trends continue, believe experts.

Blood donation started from the times of WWII when giving your blood was a matter of national pride, said Chandra Stewart, spokesperson for Vitalant, one of the country's oldest and largest nonprofit transfusion medicine organizations. The 10 donation center brands that come together collectively under the name Vitalant are: Blood Centers of the Pacific, BloodSource, Bonfils Blood Center, Central Blood Bank, Community Blood Services, Inland Northwest Blood Center, Lifeblood, LifeShare, LifeSource and United Blood Services, in addition to the umbrella organization Blood Systems, Blood Systems Laboratories, and Blood Systems Research Institute.

(Vitalant/Facebook)

The fundamental reason for the crisis is not just a decline in the frequency of donors. There has been a decline in the number of donors too. What started off as a civic duty-driven phenomenon, she says, has changed into more of an "individual transformational impact". 

The industry is also seeing a decline because there isn't enough awareness being created to reach out to and keep existing younger donors, the millennials, in particular, said Mark Gilman, vice-president for Donor Engagement and Operations at Bloodworks Northwest. Since they rely on high schools for close to 20 percent of their donors, when school is out for the summer, they lose that segment drastically creating the "perfect storm—increasing demand and diminishing supply", he says. 

There are other factors that add to their fast-moving train such as deferrals, fear, and competition for time. In order to keep the scales balanced, Bloodworks NW consistently replenishes its donor base with a 3-5% increase from the three youngest demographic groups.

Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day hit the worst 

While summer vacations spell a kind of disaster, there is a seasonal pattern to the rate of blood donation, said Kirby Winn, spokesperson for the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center. Fewer donors give blood during the summer months of June, July, and August and during the holiday season (late November through early January), he said. Severe winter weather also affects the rate of blood donation in a similar way. 

The country collectively needs to have 33,000 donated units of blood each day to meet the needs of patients, who include cancer patients, trauma and accident victims, children and adults with blood disorders, and more (Bloodcentre.org)

"In our experience, the rate of blood donation can drop by as much as 20% during the week of a summer holiday, such as Fourth of July, Memorial Day, or Labor Day. The challenge, of course, is that the need for blood is constant. Hospitals never close and the use of blood never stops," he says. "These weeks are without a doubt the most challenging for blood supply," he added.

Mass appeals go unnoticed 

Mass appeals by Vitalant and many other U.S. blood centers are more frequent and largely go unnoticed, Stewart says. "Our research shows that younger generations expect a more individualized experience with their blood center. They want to feel and understand the impact they are making on others and themselves. This is a challenge for blood centers as blood donation is generally an anonymous act", she said. There is a good chance their donation of blood and blood components is going to transform a life right in their own backyard, she said.  

'Product rotation' an important part of managing this crisis 

For these donation centers that cater to many hospitals in different parts of the United States, it is all the more important and difficult to keep blood on the shelves at all times, especially during the off-season. The Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center, which caters to more than 100 hospitals in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin, uses "Product rotation" to manage their inventory, they say. "This is the process of delivering the most recently donated units of blood to hospitals that use less blood. We "rotate" units of blood from those hospitals to larger hospitals that use blood more frequently," the spokesperson explains. This ensures that the units are not out of date, expired, or wasting away on the shelf.

Young donors the immediate solution

The country collectively needs to have 33,000 donated units of blood each day to meet the needs of patients, which include cancer patients, trauma and accident victims, children and adults with blood disorders, and more, said Stewart. More donors are the obvious answer but it is easier said than done. There is a need for targeted donor engagement medium platforms since every generation has its own preferred medium. 

Not all heroes wear capes! First-time donor Amy and 2-gallon donor Anthony stopped by our Macomb site. (Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center/Facebook)

"Specifically with millennials, we’ve introduced a new donor engagement platform in the form of a new app that allows donors to build and join social groups, encouraging the participation of their friends. They can track giving history and see their impact and we can communicate with them now over a mobile platform which is their preferred medium. At present we’re closing in on 20,000 downloads. We soft-launched the app only a few months ago - October of 2018," said Gilman. All they have to do, irrespective of their age, is simply text the word, “bloodapp” to 91985 if they're in the Pacific Northwest - the area of service in Southeast Alaska to Southern Oregon, to use their services.

Rewarding the donors

Some centers use gift cards to attract donors, along with increased outreach. A donor is eligible for a redeemable $10 gift cards at times when the blood crunch is harder than the rest of the year. The voucher can be redeemed for the donor's choice of four different options. You can keep a track of their donation drives here. 

"Giving blood supports the backbone of America’s health system as it’s used to transform lives every day and it is only blood on the shelf that can save someone. It’s a commitment of time, but in about an hour one blood donor can save up to three lives," Stewart said. "If eligible blood donors increased their donations even just one additional time a year, we could eliminate shortages and avert future crises," she added.

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