Life-saving Australian heroes should be paid for their donations

Many Australians generously donate life-saving plasma for burns, cancer, trauma and other critical medical needs. Australian plasma donors are heroes, regularly sacrificing 90 minutes at a donation centre with a needle in their arms for over 40 minutes.

While the Australian Red Cross Blood Service (ARCBS) is vocal in their appreciation of plasma donors, volunteer donors are nonetheless being treated unfairly.

Australian donors receive no material compensation – money or otherwise – for their time or plasma. This is despite the fact that about half of the plasma used in Australia is currently provided by paid overseas donors, primarily from the US, who on average receive $50 each time they donate.

It is abysmally unfair that we discriminate against Australian heroes by not compensating them for providing the identical service that we indirectly pay to overseas donors. And with the demand for plasma continuing to grow rapidly, it is time to stop discriminating against our life-saving Australians and treat them the same way we treat overseas donors.

Why aren’t Australian plasma donors being compensated? As sure as the sun comes up, beware of the four dubious and unsupported arguments that are given to avoid compensating donors.

The first often-used argument is that providing compensation will reduce donations. This is based on the claim that people’s intrinsic motivation to help others will be reduced or eliminated if they are compensated, and introducing compensation will reduce the total amount of plasma donated.

This argument has been put forward since the 1960s, but without any credible basis. In a review of the scientific evidence my research team found that compensation, even as little as a few dollars, robustly increases donations.

The evidence suggests that donors can feel good about helping others while getting compensated for their time. This should come as no surprise; after all, we often feel good about our work despite getting paid. Moreover, with compensation, many people may start donating who could otherwise not afford losing wages by taking time off work without the compensation.

The second argument suggests providing compensation will increase risks to the plasma supply (such as hepatitis and STDs). This claim has also been made since the 1960s. Again, no credible scientific evidence exists to support it. Further, many technological medical advances have also made this unfounded concern essentially obsolete given the inexpensive and effective tests and treatments of plasma donations.

The third argument claims compensating donors for saving lives is morally repugnant.

My colleagues have shown that this argument is based on peoples’ attitudes when ignorant of the consequences of not paying donors. When people become aware of the increase in lives saved with compensation, people are dramatically less likely to see any moral repugnance and instead favour compensation.

And the final argument suggests that providing compensation will increase the costs of collecting plasma. In fact, the opposite is likely true. Australians currently pay more than three times as much for each unit of plasma that we collect from Australian donors than we do for each unit that we import from paid donors overseas. That results in more than $200 million in higher costs each year, paid by all of us, due to the current process of domestic collections.

Without more information, it is challenging to understand exactly why it costs so much more to collect a unit of plasma in Australia than to import it. There are at least two likely causes.

First, compensation can dramatically reduce recruitment costs to get donors into the centres. An American Red Cross Blood Service worker told our research team many years ago that if they offered $50 for a blood donation, they would need months to prepare for the long lines of donors. Second, the Australian Red Cross Blood Service has a monopoly on all blood product collections within Australia, and so faces no market pressure to save Australian taxpayer money, whereas the imported plasma is coming from a competitive market.

If the federal government continues to argue against compensating Australian donors for any of the above reasons – and bases its arguments on moral grounds – then it must rethink its policy of importing plasma from compensated overseas’ donors or accept the hypocrisy and unfairness of its policies towards Australian donors.

It is high time to compensate Australia’s plasma donors to eliminate discrimination against them, to save millions of dollars, and to diminish our reliance on overseas donors for our critical life-saving medical needs.

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Robert Slonim is a professor of economics at the University of Sydney and has written extensively on charitable behaviour and blood donations.

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