Blood donation is old-fashioned. To get the word out about blood drives, local blood centers still send out postcards, make phone calls and post fliers on cork boards in your grocery store, church, school or community center. Sometimes you'll have a friend going to donate, and she convinces you to go along.
Considering the highly advanced digital age we live in, there should be a simple, one-click method for finding out how to donate. But streamlining the process isn't exactly a priority for blood centers. They prefer personal attempts, uncomfortable with trying to reach potential donors through, say, a smartphone screen.
However, the medical industry as a whole is looking at the bigger picture. Scientists are working to eliminate the reliance on blood donation altogether, focusing efforts instead on creating artificial blood in laboratories. The problem is, no one really knows how long that will take.
In the meantime, the U.S. is facing down a chronic blood shortage — more than 41,000 blood donations are needed every day — and smarter technology could be the best way to fix it.
The facts of modern donation
There are approximately 10 pints of blood in the human body — when you donate, you give one pint. Someone in the U.S. needs blood every two seconds, and your one-pint donation can save three lives.
According to Kathleen Rowe, director of plasma and market development at Blood Centers of America (which brings together more than 35 blood centers across North America), there's a small yet dedicated core of donors giving as often as twice per month.
While these dedicated do-gooders make an impact, statistics show that they're in the minority. Approximately 38% of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood, but less than 10% do so annually. The pool of donors is also limited, due to factors that cause ineligibility, including having cardiovascular disease, traveling outside of the country, contracting infections, recently acquiring tattoos or piercings, or men who have had sex with other men.
If the need is so great, why is it that able-bodied folks don't give blood more often? The list of reasons runs the gamut, whether it's being scared of needles, not having time or, most importantly, simply not knowing about nearby blood drives.
As of 2012, 50% of the people who donated to blood centers said they did so because they received a phone call from the American Red Cross. The other 50% attended blood drives organized by companies, community or religious organizations, and schools, which publicized their efforts via word of mouth and social media.
"The good old telephone is still very much in use," Rowe says. "What is effective about the phone call is that personal touch."
Other forms of medical donations occur through these methods, too. Organ and bone marrow donors take similar approaches, getting the word out with PSAs, grassroots-style campaigning, websites and social media.
The social media boost
On May 1, 2012, Facebook added a feature that allowed users to post the Timeline event "Registered as an Organ Donor." It also encouraged unregistered users to register by linking to the organ donation site that corresponds to a particular user's state.
On the very first day, 57,451 users updated their profiles, and there were 13,012 new online donor registrations with the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The direct impact was immediate, and that was just from Facebook alone. But why is it that social media is the most "advanced" aspect of blood drives, especially when it's been proven that social media, a relatively low-tech solution, makes an actual impact on the industry?
There might be an app for that
"[The] entire [blood donor] industry is very slow-moving to adopt any new technology," says Chris Yoko, a founder of app Blood Donor Mobile.
Launched in November 2013, the app alerts people in the Washington, D.C. area where the closest blood drive is happening, sets reminders for the next time you're eligible to donate and connects to social media so you can post about your good deed. Though it's not the only app of its kind, it's one of few reliable sources.
A longtime blood donor, Yoko had the idea for the app after he moved to D.C. and was looking for nearby places to donate. With a background in web design, he decided to research blood donor apps, but he came up empty-handed. Thus, Blood Donor Mobile was born, partnering with Inova Hospital, which has a database of 50,000 active donors, and Arlington-based company Segue Technologies.
Blood Donor Mobile is growing at an even pace, currently hosting 3,000 active users, and the team is in talks to expand to six other blood banks.
Will science eradicate blood drives?
"I don’t know how many more years blood donation will actually be a thing,""I don’t know how many more years blood donation will actually be a thing," Yoko says. He's referring to the scientific production of blood in laboratories, such as theWellcome Trust program, which claims to have come close to creating artificial blood that will be tested out on humans in 2016 or 2017.
The Indian Institute of Technology Madras is anotherinstitution that says it has successfully engineered enough red blood cells to use on people who need transfusions. However, that is also a long way off, with trial periods projected to start in five years. Science seems determined to finally eradicate the dependence on blood donors, but the technology simply isn't there yet.
Rowe is more skeptical of a near future with mass-produced blood cells, because it's "one of those things where you can't yet completely replicate the biology."
"I’ve been in this for about 20 years," Rowe says. "When I started, they were saying we would have artificial blood by the time I got to this age, and we still haven’t seen it yet."
Instead she sees the future shifting toward very specific blood collection, in which medical professionals will parse out what hospitals need and don't need. Hospitals and blood centers will become more connected and the process will be integrated; as soon as a doctor takes a vial of Type O negative blood off a shelf, a blood center will be notified, and will focus on replenishing that specific supply.
But that, too, is a long way off.
The modern solution
Blood centers simply aren't putting a premium on tapping into the digital zeitgeist. They prefer relying on old-school methods, despite the fact that society is rapidly advancing.
For now, Rowe says the only effective method that really encourages people to donate is making phone calls. Texting, which some centers utilize, could also be impactful, she says, but it doesn't provide that same human touch.
Yoko thinks a more tech-heavy approach is key, and he's working on adding game-like features to Blood Donor Mobile. For example, the app will offer points and badges to users when they give 10 donations, and also add incentives to get people to share their success on social media.
If social media incentives alone have heavily bolstered the organ donation realm, as was the case with Facebook, it's very possible to see a similar boost happen in the world of blood donation, which is much more low-impact in comparison. It would be even more powerful to have an all-around tech initiative, such as more apps and more technological integration between hospitals and blood drives.
Until then, the medical industry will keep collecting blood the old-fashioned way.