BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ashley E. Anker, PhD, research assistant
professor in the Department of Communication at the University at
Buffalo, has received a three-year, $630,468 federal grant to fund
a project aimed at increasing family consent rates for organ
It is one of eight federal grants awarded to the
department’s faculty since 2003 for studies aimed at
increasing organ donation.
This grant, awarded by the Health Resource Services
Administration’s (HRSA) Division of Transplantation, will
fund Anker’s project, “A Positive Deviance Approach to
Improving Familial Consent Rates,” which targets organ
procurement coordinators (OPCs), the individuals responsible for
obtaining familial consent for organ donation.
The HRSA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services (HHS) whose principle function is to improve access to
health care services for those who are uninsured, isolated or
Anker says, “There is a documented negative association
between family consent rates and the degree of racial/ethnic
diversity in a donation service area. Our project focuses on
improving OPCs’ communication with potential donor families
so as to increase the likelihood of consent, particularly in those
She says the project is driven by the “Positive
Deviance” approach, which holds that within any community
there are individuals whose deviant, but positive, behaviors allow
them to thrive despite circumstances that restrict their peers.
Identifying the behaviors that explain improved outcomes, then
encouraging community members to teach such skills to one another
has been found to be a powerful method of producing change.
Anker says the research team first will identify OPCs who are
“positive deviants” (PDs), in their field, that is,
those with high consent rates even in service areas with diverse
populations. They then will interview them to determine the
communication skills they use when interacting with families of
potential organ donors.
“We are interested in novel communication skills,”
says Anker, “Those that set these coordinators apart from
“Once the novel behaviors are identified, we will
encourage coordinators in 11 discrete participating organ
procurement organizations in 10 states to take ownership of the
behaviors and employ them in their own requests,” she says.
Of participating organizations, she says nine serve ethnically and
racially diverse populations.
Information dissemination and training methods will include a
video featuring advice from PD coordinators, an interactive project
website, group discussions, role play activities, a training manual
with supplementary participatory action learning activities, and
online refresher courses.
To evaluate the success of the project, researchers will track
changes in OPCs’ quarterly family consent rates over the
course of the three-year project and compare these with their
reported use of the new skills.
The Department of Health and Human Services reports that
although people of most races and ethnicities in the U.S. donate in
proportion to their representation in the population, the need for
transplants in some groups is disproportionately high, frequently
due to a high incidence of such conditions as high blood pressure
or diabetes, both of which can lead to the need for a kidney
As of May 2013, African American, Pacific islanders, Native
Americans and Hispanic/ Latinos comprised 54.7 percent of those in
need of an organ transplant, for instance, although the 2010 census
reported that these groups comprise only about 36 percent of the
Health communication is a major research focus of the UB
Department of Communication, specifically that related to organ
donation. Since 2003, its faculty members have conducted funded
research on ways to increase the organ donation rate in the U.S.
through the use of promotional messaging and educational
In addition to this project, Anker is completing two others with
Thomas Feeley, PhD, professor and chair of the UB Department of
Communication. The first studies ways in which interventions with
the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles can facilitate
donor registration. The second involves a direct mail campaign to
promote donor registration to adults between the ages of 50 and