Cal Poly Faculty and Alumni Coauthor Economics Research on Organ Donation Markets

Two Cal Poly economics graduates have collaborated with Professor Eduardo Zambrano on research examining reforms to the current kidney donation model in the United States, including compensating donors while protecting those with low ability to offer such compensation. K.C. Eames and Patrick Holder, who both graduated with undergraduate degrees in economics in 2011, contributed to the project with Zambrano. The research was recently published in the Journal of Health Economics, one of the field’s most prestigious publications.

The idea for the research came from Eames’ Cal Poly senior project in 2011, where she explored the idea of a paid market for kidneys to remedy the existing shortage of donated organs.

“I don’t have any personal connection to organ donation, but I remember wanting to do something different from what others were doing,” said Eames, who is now a CPA, about her motives for the Learn by Doing project. “I like the behavioral and incentive side of economics, how we can change people’s behavior by incentivizing them in various ways, and finding those incentives while still taking into account potential unintended consequences.”

Zambrano approached Eames about extending her initial set of results. Eames said she felt honored to have one of her favorite professors validate her idea. Zambrano, who has conducted valuable research on welfare economics and the measurement of human development, began by pulling data from the National Kidney Foundation as Eames left Cal Poly for a job in industry. Holder, who is earning his PhD in economics at UC Santa Barbara, joined the project in 2016 to aid on revisions to the initial draft after it had been submitted for peer review.

Despite the seriousness of the kidney shortage, potential reform to kidney markets faces opposition because a paid system could put less wealthy patients at a disadvantage or motivate donors who don’t understand the risks. The research team proposed a cooperative method that would potentially increase donations while protecting those at risk of being isolated in in a paid market.

“It wasn’t a surprising outcome necessarily — when you pay people for things, you get more of it,” said Eames of the results. “​I guess what was surprising to me is that you could calculate a scenario that would provide a benefit to more people than the status quo. At the same time, I understand that many people would have a hard time adapting to reforms such as the ones we’re examining.”

Eames and the team hope the research pushes the boundaries of how people think about what practical reforms could save lives, even if they challenge cultural norms.

Find the paper “Solving the Kidney Shortage Via the Creation of Kidney Donation Co-operatives” in the Journal of Health Economics: