Modernizing the U.S. organ transplant system just in time for the AI revolution

Update: This op-ed was first featured in Fortune.


The recent signing of The Securing the U.S. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network Act heralds the beginning of a new era for organ transplantation. For the first time since the national system’s creation in 1984, multiple organizations will participate in the system’s operations, ending the process that previously awarded full oversight and management of the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) to a single organization. This uncharted territory has prompted questions from patients and donors: How will the modernized system impact candidates’ wait time for an organ transplant? How will multiple government contractors work together to ensure that donated organs are matched efficiently to patients in need? And many more.

“Everybody knows the system has been broken for years with heartbreaking consequences. Now with the president’s signature, we are taking significant steps to improve it,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre after President Biden signed the bill into law last month.

This bipartisan legislation received integral support from Congressional leaders in both the House and Senate, enabling multiple government grants or contracts to be awarded to operate the system’s public-private partnership of the OPTN, as well as lifting a federal funding cap that was previously in place.

As a heart transplant recipient, I’m encouraged by the bipartisan attention and support efforts to modernize the system. The transplant community isn’t one that a person ever expects to join, but organ donors, donor families, transplant recipients, candidates, and caregivers deserve the focus, care, and resources that we hope to see as a result of the latest legislation.

While this is a significant milestone, its success for our community hinges on flawless implementation. This new phase of the OPTN needs to establish ambitious, patient-centric goals to measure progress and ensure improved system performance. Currently, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. are awaiting an organ transplant, highlighting the pressing need to increase transplant numbers, improve access, and shorten waiting times for patients in need. Importantly, modernizing the organ transplant system involves not only enhancing the transplant process but also focusing on improving post-transplant outcomes and recipients’ quality of life.

To navigate this transformative journey, four key areas of success must be kept in mind:

Seamless collaboration

Bill H.R. 2544 facilitates system participation from many organizations, leading to multiple contracts and grant awardees. This requires the effective selection of capable vendors, shared contract responsibilities through government contract teaming arrangements, and ongoing vendor cooperation to ensure the system continuously benefits patients and donors.

Leading with data and AI

In the midst of the AI revolution, transitioning the nearly four-decade-old OPTN to a data-driven culture will drive quality improvement for better outcomes and improved system performance. The adoption and consistent application of a data-centric approach across every facet of the system’s operations, from end-stage organ disease diagnosis through a patient’s final days, will unlock new actionable insights that are crucial to keeping systems up to date for a seamless and cohesive integration of participating stakeholders.

Governance based on transparency

As the OPTN adds many participating vendors to the once-single-vendor system, demanding transparency across contracts and stakeholders is crucial to seamless integration and success. Fostering a culture of governance based on the sole purpose of an efficient system for patients and donors will require more transparency and accountability in all aspects of operations. Therefore, increased government oversight and action will ensure system integrity to make transplants more accessible and equitable for all Americans.

Overcommunication

With so much change expected to come to the organ transplant system and community, the OPTN and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) need to continuously reassert their commitment within the community and to the general public that these changes will be made diligently and with community involvement. Overcommunication around changes will not only increase trust in the system but also help keep it patient-focused.

The previous tenets of OPTN management and operations were groundbreaking when enacted in 1984, but that was nearly 40 years ago. Today, Bill H.R. 2544 creates a new opportunity to modernize the organ transplant system in the age of the AI revolution through transformative data analytics and reporting, an empowered public-private partnership, and renewed support and resources from HHS.

As a patient less than three years out from the quadruple organ failure that led to my emergency heart transplant, and as the father of a two-year-old with another child on the way, I don’t simply hope that modernizing this system will save and extend more lives–I’m counting on it.