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Special Communication
August 2015

Crisis Awaiting Heart Transplantation: Sinking the Lifeboat

Author Affiliations
  • 1Advanced Heart Disease Section, Heart and Vascular Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts
JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(8):1406-1409. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.2203

The number of heart transplants performed in the United States was 2177 in 1994 and 2166 in 2014. However, the number of transplant centers has increased, and the criteria for transplants have broadened to include patients 65 years or older, those with a body mass index greater than 30, and more comorbid conditions, such as diabetes mellitus and a history of smoking. As the transplant waiting list has become longer and waiting times have increased, the major route to heart transplants has become deterioration to the most urgent priority status, which accounts for 10% of patients on the waiting list but two-thirds of transplants. Many heart transplant candidates develop life-threatening complications of a ventricular assist device implanted to avert death while waiting. Some affluent patients, however, can afford to temporarily relocate and obtain a transplant in regions where the waiting times are shorter without prior surgery to implant a ventricular assist device. The ethics of allocating hearts for transplant have always recalled the classic lifeboat dilemma of how many people can be allowed to board an already overcrowded lifeboat without sinking the ship and everyone on board. As transplant physicians, we advocate with the best intentions on behalf of our own patients rather than denying transplants to those less likely to benefit. In recognizing our responsibilities as stewards of scarce donor hearts, we should reduce new listings for heart transplants, thus restoring balance to the waiting list and keeping the lifeboat afloat.

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