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Sarah Lincoln

In this post, I will analyze the effectiveness of donating blood according to GiveWell’s top charity criteria.


Evidence of effectiveness

Red blood cell (RBC) transfusions are common practice in intensive care units; nearly half of patients receive one during their stay to increase oxygen delivery to tissues. This is unquestionably effective at increasing the survival rate of patients with profound anaemia, circulatory shock, or other conditions which result from critical impairment of tissue oxygenation.

That being said, those cases only make up a minority of blood transfusions. Most RBC transfusions are given to patients with otherwise high chances of survival, in the hopes of speeding up their recovery. The benefits of RBC transfusions for these patients are less documented, and it’s difficult to calculate how many QALY’s are actually saved.


Cost-effectiveness

To estimate the cost-effectiveness of blood donations, we can use the price of a unit of red blood cells in the UK - the equivalent of 156 US dollars - as a stand-in for its true value. Using this approach, red blood cell donations are 2 orders of magnitude less than an equivalent monetary donation to the Against Malaria Foundation in terms of cost-effectiveness.

However, many would argue that the cost of donating blood is not $156, it’s just 30 minutes of your time. The time-cost of that half hour is miniscule for most people, so blood donations could easily be on par with GiveWell’s top charities in terms of cost-effectiveness.


Room for more funding

As stated earlier, most blood transfusions go to patients who don’t necessarily need them for survival. Hospitals typically keep a store of O- red blood cell units for emergencies, and the existing group of dedicated blood donors generally produce enough donations to maintain these stores. Thus, additional donations from members of the EA community would likely go towards speeding up the recovery of patients with non-life-threatening conditions. While this is still a desirable outcome, some may argue that the marginal returns are too small to make donating blood a primary objective of effective altruism.

It’s important to note that there are some times when blood donations are more marginally effective, such as during the winter or holidays, when some core donors are unable to donate due to illness.


While the effectiveness of donating blood is almost certainly lower than donating money to GiveWell’s top charities, it comes at so little cost to the donor that many should at least consider it.


Sources:

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/jqCCM3NvrtCYK3uaB/blood-donation-generally-not-that-effective-on-the-margin

https://www.givewell.org/how-we-work/criteria

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2782802/