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What Air Traffic Can Teach Us About Kidney Transplants

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This is the second of two stories we're doing this week on organ transplants. See the first story, Who Decides Whether This 26-Year-Old Woman Gets A Lung Transplant?

Nikolaos Trichakis is a Harvard Business School professor who studies air traffic. He was watching the news one night when a segment came on about the waiting list for kidney transplants.

He'd never thought much about organs, but it immediately became clear to him that his insights into air traffic might help patients waiting for kidneys.

Trichakis and his colleagues try to figure out how to balance fairness and efficiency.

In a purely fair system air traffic system, planes take off in exactly the order that they are scheduled. But if what you care about is efficiency, you may let a plane full of passengers with layovers take off first, so you don't have lots of people miss their connections.

In an organ-allocation system based solely on fairness, organs may simply go to the person who has been waiting the longest. But if you care about efficiency, you might give the healthiest organ to the patient who is likely to live the longest after the transplant.

Trichakis and his colleagues decided to try to figure out how to balance fairness and efficiency in kidney transplants. They spent last summer building a sophisticated computer model that included thousands of variables and decades of data on organs and patients and medical outcomes.

At the end of the summer, they ran their model against the formula doctors currently use to allocate kidneys. Trichakis' model was just as fair as the current system-- and enormously more efficient.

If you used their model to match patients and kidneys for one year, and you totalled up the extra life expectancy patients would gain, you'd get 5,000 extra years of life, according to their results.

Trichakis and his colleagues are now working with the doctors who determine how organs are allocated.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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