September 25, 2014

Psychology professors receive nearly $2 million to advance research into organ donation

Claremont Graduate University (CGU) psychology Professors Jason Siegel and Eusebio Alvaro have received a pair of new grants totaling nearly $2 million from the Health Resources and Services Administration to advance their research into methods for increasing organ donation.

Siegel received a three-year, $1.2 million grant to examine how to maximize donor registration among Hispanics. Alvaro received a two-year, $700,000 grant to research methods for increasing organ donor registration rates among teenagers. While each project focuses on a different demographic, Siegel and Alvaro serve as co-leaders for the other’s project.

“Ideally, we will each be able to increase the number of registered organ donors while simultaneously contributing to psychological science,” Siegel said.

Over 123,000 people are on the waiting list for an organ, and a new person is added every ten minutes. On average, 79 people receive organ donation transplants per day, but 18 people also die each day for lack of one.

Siegel’s new project will target Spanish speakers in Arizona and New Mexico. It responds to a rise in the minority group’s need for donated organs, but an unbalanced, lower rate of donors, compared to other ethnic groups. Hispanics make up 18.7 percent of candidates on the waiting list, but only 13 percent of deceased donors were Hispanic, and minority groups such as Hispanics are three times more likely than Caucasians to suffer from end-stage renal disease.

The study will explore whether positive motivation (eliciting emotions such as happiness, gratitude, and serenity) is more effective than negative pressure (18 people die every day from lack of an organ) in convincing Hispanics to become organ donors.

The study will take place at Mexican consulates in Tucson and Albuquerque. Health educators will approach visitors and ask them to watch one of several videos after which they will be given an opportunity to sign up as a donor.

“This research is a rare application of positive psychology to the problem of organ donation,” Siegel said.

Alvaro’s project will research best methods for increasing the rate of donor registration among 16 to 18 year olds in Arizona. Because that is when most youth receive identification cards or driver’s licenses, it is an ideal time to make them aware of the disparity in organ donation and encourage them to register.

The project follows a previous campaign tested in Illinois, which measured the donor-registration outcomes of letters alone and those that also included a brochure. The Illinois study determined that letters alone are just as effective as a letter with a brochure.

Alvaro will experiment with three waves of letters, each with different motivational content, in hopes of determining the most effective way of persuading the teens to enlist as donors. He plans to reach out to more than 100,000 adolescents.

“While our lab has investigated how to best avoid arousing negative reactions to messages designed to help adolescents, we have had little opportunity to study another interesting approach—how to leverage natural tendencies towards independence in order to successfully enhance desired behaviors,” Alvaro said.

Since 1999, Alvaro and Siegel have been working to raise awareness for and encourage organ donor registration. While graduate students, the behavioral scientists forged a partnership with the Donor Network of Arizona, and have been exploring issues of organ donation disparities ever since, from designing media campaigns to setting up booths at community events.

Their work brings social psychology, health psychology, and positive psychology together with medical science to fulfill the mission of CGU’s Health Psychology and Prevention Science Institute (HPPSI), which aims to study how to best address critical health issues in real world contexts.

“Professors Siegel and Alvaro have established themselves as leading experts in
the area of health promotion and disease prevention,” said Stewart Donaldson, dean of CGU’s School of Social Science, Policy, & Evaluation. “We are so fortunate to have them leading many of our health behavior research initiatives and academic programs at CGU.”

The Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the primary federal agency for improving access to health care by strengthening the health care workforce, building healthy communities and achieving health equity.