Is blood donation an efficient way to help others?
May 8, 2012 7:25 AM   Subscribe

When I donate blood or platelets, how much am I helping others? Is this an efficient form of community work? Donating platelets takes a couple of hours. Should I be working those hours and donating the money or volunteering in some more active way?

I've been donating for years and always feel good about it, but wondered this morning if I've been kidding myself. I regularly see articles on the internet, usually written by economists, about how some well meaning form of charity is actually harmful or inefficient. I don't think that's the case with blood and platelet donation, but wondered about it. The whole process is so easy (sitting there reading my book, watching a movie, or chatting with employees of the blood bland), that the idea that I'm actually doing some good seems too good to be true.
posted by Area Man to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's probably not too good to be true for the person who needs it. Consider this: donation of blood and plasma is the only way people will get it, until some artificial blood substitute is made widely available and donation is no longer necessary. You could also consider donating money to the Red Cross, Civitan or whoever runs the local blood bank, but I wouldn't stop donating.
posted by jquinby at 7:31 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

There might be something you could do for two hours that would "help" more, but that doesn't mean that someone else would fill your slot at the Red Cross blood donation center. Lots and lots of people are too squicked out to donate blood, so you're filling a very important niche by being willing to do that.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:35 AM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

As far as I'm aware, the only way to get blood into blood banks is by donating it. There's no mass-available artificial blood, we can't take it from the living against their will, and we can't get it out of dead bodies. Unless a person shows up, sits their butt down in the chair, and gets drained, there's not going to be any blood to go around. Plus different parts of the blood have different expiration times, so the supply needs to be regularly replenished whether or not the blood is used. The Protestant work ethic is really insidious: doing good doesn't necessarily have to be hard.
posted by griphus at 7:35 AM on May 8, 2012 [12 favorites]

Also, keep in mind that a good portion of the population who want to donate blood, can't.
posted by griphus at 7:36 AM on May 8, 2012 [8 favorites]

Given that you are potentially saving lives with your donation, it really isn't inefficient or "too good to be true."
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:37 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I donate platelets at least once a month. When I first started donating I asked how often the platelets get tossed. They claim that particularly for platelets, which are often used for cancer patients, never get wasted and are in huge demand. It takes many blood donations to get 1 viable platelet donation, so the fact that you are spending 2 hours giving platelets makes a huge and direct difference in someone's life. They have a shelf life of 3 days, so they are trucking them over to the local hospital pretty quickly.

Lots of people either can't give blood or platelets or aren't willing to sit for 2 hours and have their blood drawn out and recirculated. So yes, it's definitely a good way to give back.
posted by Sal and Richard at 7:42 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm sure someone at the American Enterprise Institute could write an op-ed on why it would actually be More Efficient to put in two hours of overtime at your job, but that doesn't make them right, you know?

Keep giving blood. We need it.
posted by theodolite at 7:52 AM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you have the ability to save a human life in two hours, on your own schedule, on a regular basis, you should go do that. That is, it might be inefficient in terms of lives saved for you to take time out of your job as a superhero (or maybe even as a trauma surgeon in a war zone or a really talented suicide hotline counselor) to watch a few episodes of The Office and pump out a unit of platelets. But unless your day job involves saving lives on demand, donating blood or blood products is probably as efficient at live-saving as anything else you could be doing with your time, if not more so.

(Also, thank you. My little sister's life was saved 23 years ago by an infusion of red blood cells at a critical moment in surgery, and she wouldn't be here today if not for people like you.)
posted by decathecting at 7:55 AM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

A former boyfriend of mine, along with my little brother, would be dead but for donated blood. So, the hour or two it takes to give blood, plus the ten units they needed between them, equals...two lifetimes! You can't beat that sort of math.

Giving blood directly saves lives, in a way that money can't.
posted by punchtothehead at 7:57 AM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

There are a bunch of factors here. Donating plasma pays $20-$50 a time, and can be done a max of twice a week. So the absolute market value would be $400 a month for eight donations. Could you earn that donation within the time it takes you to donate?

But there's also the question of who you would donate the money to - most of the blood donation places are unlikely to need private donations as much as they want blood donations. So you'd be donating to a different end cause.

You could donate the $400 a month to a malaria-net charity or something similar in the developing world that would be able to save a life each month. Your eight donations of plasma during that time might have helped save a life too though.

Why not compromise and keep donating blood, taking the time when you're doing it to just chill out, and choose a charity you really support and cut a smaller regular donation to it? Blood donation is pretty much a purely good and very specific thing - you're comparing apples to oranges here.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:59 AM on May 8, 2012

Please keep donating!!! There is no substitute for blood and platelets.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:04 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whenever I've donated platelets, the nurses thank me and remind me that my donation provides up to 12 doses for the NICU. They love my whole blood too: I'm O-Neg and CMV-Neg, and they really REALLY love my nice "clean" blood up there for those babies, many of whom they haven't had a chance to blood-test before the kid needs help, stat.

So let's see: I can spend 2-3 hours every month or so wrapped in blankets, taking a nap and multi-tasking doing a good deed, or I can take that same nap at home doing nothing else. Slam-dunk, ain't it?!?
posted by easily confused at 8:10 AM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Keep donating! Platelets are so important and the only place they come from is other people!

There is no substitute for the gift you are giving.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:11 AM on May 8, 2012

People like you have saved the lives of my brother and mother. I don't know if it's the most efficient use of your time, but if someone somewhere hadn't donated blood my bother who needed a complete blood transfusion at birth and my mother who has had 2 serious accidents requiring blood transfusions would both be dead. I personally want to thank you and all the people like you.
posted by wwax at 8:15 AM on May 8, 2012

A friend of my family was in a terrible car accident two weeks ago and required 14 units of blood and platelets to save his life.

Donating blood may not be the single most helpful or time-efficient way to help humanity (it's pretty hard to decide what is!) but when it helps people, it helps them in an immediate, concrete way and it SAVES LIVES. Pretty good bang for your volunteering buck.
posted by Cygnet at 8:17 AM on May 8, 2012

At the risk of threadjacking, if anyone can comment from experience/facts (hopefully alongside their response to the OP's question) about how giving platelets (or double secret platelets, etc) is better/worse for people that need them?

As someone who just donates plain old blood on a regular basis, I'm open to doing more but not if it's not actually going to help someone proportionally to my time/effort. Kinda like how I'm on the marrow donor registry as well because, even though it will be a huge hassle if I'm called up, it could absolutely save a life.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:21 AM on May 8, 2012

Let's swap; you keep giving blood, because I can't, and I'll do a couple of hours extra of other work in your honor.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:23 AM on May 8, 2012 [7 favorites]

So yeah, harmful or inefficient:

There was a great comment a while back about how if 10,000 anti-mosquito nets are dropped on some African village, that's wonderful in terms of stopping malaria, but pretty much crushes the locals who make mosquito nets so that when those 10,000 nets wear out everyone is pretty much out of luck. That's one issue.

Similarly, shortly after the Hatti earthquake the big issue was that they could only work so many planes full of relief supplies through the airport due to the time it took to unload them. Sending non-critical supplies meant that you were displacing critical supplies. That's another.

Blood doesn't really have either of these drawbacks - if you need blood, you need blood and it's kind of important that it matches your isotypes. If you have a plan that would allow you to use the couple hours a month you are currently spending donating blood to instead found "Forklift Drivers without Borders" so that next time there's a big disaster they can turn planes around in 10 minutes, that would be great. If not, blood donation is still good.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:27 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

There isn't an alternative source of blood other than personal donations. You're not displacing someone who would be better and more helpful at donating blood just because you're doing it. Your money cannot act as a more efficient substitute for your blood. (whereas one can argue there are other charitable acts where these arguments don't apply)

My blood type is relatively uncommon. The last guy who received a pint of my blood (don't ask how I know this) received 40 pints of blood in a transfusion. There are so many restrictions on blood donation that many people who would want to donate, can't, and many people who could donate don't.

Now maybe there's a more efficient means of collecting blood that some "provocative" economist will discuss at some point. But under the current system we have, the best thing you can do if you want people to have more and easier access to blood products is to donate.
posted by deanc at 8:48 AM on May 8, 2012

The other day we had a 2 month old in the OR for his second open heart operation. Redo surgery tends to be bloody and this was no exception; I gave the patient two units of red cells, two units of plasma, a unit of cryoprecipitate, and a unit of platelets. The patient ended up doing well, but without those people willing to donate all of those things he could well have died. So absolutely keep donating blood; it has a finite shelf life and is often in short supply.
posted by TedW at 9:10 AM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

The wholesale price of blood is about $200 per unit (my recollection is that this has gone up, and in some markets is much higher), which gives you a lower bound on the value, and makes it seem like a pretty good deal unless you're highly paid on the margin.

On the other hand, you can ask what it costs to replace the blood you didn't donate. Individuals are paid about $30 per unit for plasma. The cost of extra incentives for a marginal unit of blood is between $30 and $60. I can't find a reference, but this seems in line with what I recall the price being pre-1970 when blood donors were paid. The FDA caps gifts to donors at $25, though incentives have been arranged to exceed that price ($35). (I'm not advocating compensated donation; I'm just pointing out the cost of going to get more blood from other people.)
posted by a robot made out of meat at 9:43 AM on May 8, 2012

Donating blood is great, platelets is even more commendable. Don't stop.
posted by karlos at 9:45 AM on May 8, 2012

And sign up to be an organ donor!
posted by karlos at 9:46 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wrote a paper for a class on Jewish law about whether there was a moral obligation to donate "renewable bodily resources" (blood and marrow). I learned a lot about blood donation and how irreplaceable it is. The conclusion of my paper was that there was no moral obligation in Jewish law unless there was a disaster/accident/illness/need in your city that you knew about (and were thereby obligated to help preserve life if you could), but that it was extremely morally praiseworthy because it would almost always save an unknown life if not a known life.

I'm no expert on Jewish law, this was just a student paper that had to analyze some old Talmudic stuff in light of some new moral problem. But, I think the conclusion is right: It's extremely morally praiseworthy because you'll be saving lives of people you don't even know.

I made sure my marrow registry info was up to date right after I turned in the paper!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:25 AM on May 8, 2012

The only way that donating blood/platelets would be a bad use of your time is if you had a blood type that is not in demand for the type of donation that you're making. For instance, I'm A+, which is super common and not very universal (only A+ and AB+ can receive my blood), and I know that at the blood bank where I work, we do unfortunately expire A+ red blood cells fairly regularly. However, you said that you do a platelet apheresis donation, so I'm guessing that the blood center staff asked you to do so based on your blood type. It costs more and takes more time to collect apheresis so they only do on certain blood types, and they are rarely expired.

If you wanted to be more "efficient" about it, don't take the donor incentive item (t-shirt or whatever), and ask to be taken off the mailing list. I'd say to have them stop calling you, but they probably need to make your appointment by phone anyways.

So yeah, keep donating.
posted by radioamy at 10:42 AM on May 8, 2012

The whole process is so easy (sitting there reading my book, watching a movie, or chatting with employees of the blood bland), that the idea that I'm actually doing some good seems too good to be true.

Writing a check is easy, if you have the money to cover it. Tasks don't need to be arduous to help people.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:49 AM on May 8, 2012

It will definitely depend on your blood type.
posted by bq at 10:50 AM on May 8, 2012

It is definitely an efficient way to help others. I'm O- and because I'm on the calling lists of two different Red Cross area groups, I sometimes get phone calls every week or even more often. I can't give blood now because I was recently in Belize, and that's probably the only thing I regret about that vacation!

I do know that sometimes there are donation "bulges" when everyone goes out and donates after a tragedy or similar event, and then it all expires at the same time. You could check with your local facility to see if there are certain lulls or down periods when a new donation would be most helpful and welcome, and rearrange your donation schedule around that.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:12 AM on May 8, 2012

Regarding jetlagaddict's comment, you can really maximize your donation by giving on holidays, like Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, 4th of July, etc, when donations drop a ton.
posted by radioamy at 11:18 AM on May 8, 2012

As someone who ended up needing 6 units of blood during a long illness and several surgeries, I want to thank you personally for being a blood donor. It does mean something... you are doing real good.
posted by kimdog at 11:26 AM on May 8, 2012

Thank you, everyone. I appreciate your answers and your stories. I will keep donating. I feel like I've found some sort of cheat code, a way to do some good while also spending a couple of hours watching a movie.
posted by Area Man at 11:31 AM on May 8, 2012

Just to add another anecdote: when I gave birth to my son 18 months ago, I had a haemorrhage immediately afterwards and lost three litres of blood. I probably would have survived without a blood transfusion, but having it meant that I felt better faster and I was able to recover more quickly (and enjoy the time with my new baby). I can assure you that when I was lying there watching the blood drip into my arm, my main thought was gratitude to the people who give their blood and amazement that it was there waiting for me when I needed it. Without people like you, lives would be lost. So I thank you, sincerely, and I'm glad you're going to keep it up.
posted by rubbish bin night at 12:01 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Another blood recipient here. Would've died without several transfusions. Thanks. Keep up the good work.
posted by hot_monster at 12:38 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've got a drawer full of old T-shirts announcing the gallons of blood I've donated, mostly platelets. When I got married, my wonderful husband started donating platelets with me, and now he's got the T-shirts, too. I've got a nasty case of blood cancer now (Multiple Myeloma) and they don't want my blood anymore. But I'm alive today thanks to all the platelets (and chemo, and autologous stem cell transplant: Huzzah for stem cell research!!!) I've received in the last two years.

Last year the removal of a catheter from my jugular vein went wrong. As I lay in a growing pool of my blood while a lone nurse attempted to apply pressure to stop the bleeding (where DO you put the tourniquet for a jugular wound?) and I attempted to reach the emergency call button while she screamed for help, it actually calmed me a little to think about the lovely bags of blood that would be dripped into me very, very soon.

"Thank you" doesn't come close to conveying my gratitude to you and all the other blood-givers. Please keep it up, and recommend it to your friends! The comfy chair, the warm blankets, free juice and cookies, dvd of your choice: it's a seat inn First Class without that annoying TSA. I'd donate again today if I could.
posted by Atelerix at 1:14 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Platelet donors probably helped save the life of one of my fathers when he was horribly burned. Keep it up, yo!
posted by Issithe at 9:46 PM on May 8, 2012

After seeing how many pints of blood and blood products my father went through during his stem cell transplant, I knew I would be donating blood as often as I could for the rest of my life. Yeah, it's that important. If you can, please donate. If you can't, encourage those who can and thank those that do.
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 12:22 PM on May 9, 2012

RolandOfEld, donating platelets is very valuable because a whole blood donation has to be split into the different components -- when you give platelets, the other stuff is usually put back into you and all of the stuff you donate is platelets only. And they do have the shorter shelf life. Also, the blood types needed for platelets are not all blood types, and--because it takes longer--I assume fewer people are willing to do it.

There is no substitute for human blood. What you are doing is valuable, especially if you have a needed type. Your donation might play a bit part in the larger commercial blood business--not sure if that is the same with platelets as it is for whole blood-- but my belief is that the majority of blood gets to people who need it. You can look at different banks to see what they do with the blood.

If you would like to help humanity even more, you could do some Online Volunteering while you donate.
posted by ramenopres at 6:01 PM on May 9, 2012

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