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For More Organ Donors, Just Head To The Local DMV

Posted: February 21, 2014

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Doctors and governments have struggled to cope with a scarcity of organs available for transplant. One solution? DMV clerks. When clerks ask in person if people want to be donors, many more say yes.

When Kim Zaza became the volunteer coordinator for a non profit called Gift of Life Michigan only 11 percent of Michigan's population was on the organ donor registry. Her job was to increase that number.

Zasa is energetic and really likes people. So she was naturally optimistic about her ability to sell the idea of donating organs to the people of Michigan just by talking to them. "We just went out and signed up for every art fair, church event, every little podunk little thing we could possibly think of just to try to get our information out there," she says.

And yet, despite her army of 800 volunteers, the number of people in Michigan signing up to become donors didn't grow much. When she would go to the national Donate Life conference, with all the other state organizations that manage donor registries, Zasa would sit in the back of the room. "It was kinda embarrassing for us to sit in some of those meetings. We'd be like oh look we're in the bottom of barrel again," she says.

Zasa noticed that the states that were successful had outsourced a lot of the work that she herself was doing. They had enlisted the help of an enormous workforce, the DMV. So in 2011, Kim and her colleagues convinced the state of Michigan to allow DMV clerks to ask every person if they wanted to become an organ donor.

That verbal ask made an immediate difference in donor registration numbers. "It was almost like well that can't be right. I don't know how we could have had that many," she says.

In 2010 Michigan had 320 thousand new organ donors. In 2012, the first full year the DMV clerks were asking, there were 520 thousand new organ donors in Michigan. Most signed up because a DMV clerk asked them to.

More than three million people are now on Michigan's organ donor registry. It took 16 years to register 2 million of those people. The DMV clerks did the rest in just the last few years.

It turns out getting people to become organ donors is a lot like getting people to exercise more. Put the gym in the building and they are more likely to come. Similarly, with organs it's about burying the question of mortality and body parts in a bureaucratic routine. In other words, make it easy to say yes.

At last year's national Donate Life conference, instead of sitting in the back of the room, Kim Zasa was asked to present. "It was like, wow, people actually showed up," she says. "And then people call me afterwards and say how did you do that? It felt like oh we're on the map."

Kim no longer spends lots of time driving to festivals or sending hundreds of organ recipients to the distant churches and community centers. In fact she spends most of her time traveling to the states 131 DMV offices, with chocolates for the DMV clerks. These are her soldiers now. She wants them to be pampered.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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