Race math 

Boise hospitals give up on minority marrow donors

St. Luke's Regional Medical Center will shutter its small bone marrow donor program, blaming the closure on national minority recruitment goals the hospital said are unattainable in Idaho.

But the federally funded National Marrow Donor Program said its aggressive minority recruitment goals are achievable and necessary, even in Idaho's slim demographic profile.

"We're disappointed that St. Luke's has made this decision," said Jeffrey Chell, a physician and CEO of the national program. "There is more opportunity in the minority community than they see."

Since its inception in 1986, the NMDP has had trouble meeting its goals, particularly in minority communities.

A 1989 New York Times headline, two years after the registry was started, reads "Program to Find Marrow Donors is Falling Short." The article highlights difficulties in finding matches for black, Asian, American Indian and Hispanic patients, some of whom were conducting private searches in their neighborhoods or through expensive private firms.

Since 1991, St. Luke's Mountain States Tumor Institute has housed a small bone marrow donor program, tied to the federally funded NMDP. St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center hosted a similar program meant to recruit potential bone marrow and stem cell donors for entry into an international database. In April, the St. Al's program quietly closed its doors.

In announcing its closure, St. Luke's first stated it would need to recruit 1,000 minority donors next year and then revised that total down to 575. In 2010, the number of new minority candidates on the list would increase by 15 percent.

The hospital was not sure about the penalties for not meeting those goals and opted to close its doors later this summer.

"We didn't want to have to deal with that type of uncertainty because we knew we were not going to meet those requirements," St. Luke's spokesman Ken Dey said.

Chell said there are no penalties for failing to meet the goals and that Boise is the first donor center to shut down for this reason. The Red Cross stopped recruiting for the registry several years ago.

Chell said that the NMDP helps train recruiters and reimburses donor centers based on the number of recruits. Recruiters are encouraged to develop relationships at minority churches and civic organizations. Minority fraternities and sororities frequently hold bone marrow drives.

Dey said that St. Luke's has tried some of these recruitment tactics. "For example, we've worked with the Catholic churches in Nampa, Caldwell and Jerome to try and reach the Hispanic community, and we used to travel to Eastern Idaho to do drives at the Fort Hall Indian Reservation."

But the hospital's one-man operation only managed to sign up about 1,000 new people last year, including about 100 minority candidates.

Chell said the average recruiter brings in some 3,000 new recruits in a year, half from various minority groups.

Not only are all non-white populations under-represented on the bone marrow registry, but because of genetics, matches are more difficult to find for racial and ethnic minorities, necessitating a larger pool of donors.

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