Thursday, December 26, 2019

Effective altruism and (non-directed) kidney donation

In their Christmas day discussion, the podcast Here Be Monsters considers the Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYS) that can result from non-directed kidney donation, and how that qualifies it as a form of effective altruism.

December 25, 2019 Here Be Monsters HBM127: QALYs

"In 2014, a post showed up on’s forum, written by Thomas Kelly and Josh Morrison.  The title sums up their argument well: Kidney donation is a reasonable choice for effective altruists and more should consider it
They lay out the case for helping others through kidney donation.  Kidney disease is a huge killer in the United States, with an estimated one in seven adults having the disease (though many are undiagnosed).  And those with failing kidneys have generally bad health outcomes, with many dying on the waitlist for an organ they never receive.  There’s currently about 100,000 people in the country on the kidney donation waitlist.  An editorial recently published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology estimated that 40,000 Americans die annually waiting for a kidney
The previously mentioned post on the EA forums attempts to calculate all the goods that kidney donation can do, namely adding between six and twenty good years to someone’s life.  Quantifying the “goodness” of a year is tricky, so EAs (and others) use a metric called “Quality Adjusted Life Years” or QALYs. 
The post also attempts to calculate the downsides to the donor, namely potential lost wages, potential surgery complications, and a bit of a decrease in total kidney function.  
The post concludes that kidney donation is a “reasonable” choice.  By the EA standards, “reasonable” is pretty high praise; a month or so of suffering to give about a decade of good life to someone else, all with little long term risk to the donor.  
On this episode, Jeff interviews Dylan Matthews, who donated his kidney back in 2016.  His donation was non-directed, meaning he didn’t specify a desired recipient.  This kind of donation is somewhat rare, comprising only about 3% of all kidney donations.  However, non-directed donations are incredibly useful due to the difficulty of matching donors to recipients..."
The discussion of kidneys and effective altruism starts about minute 7 in the podcast:

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