Righting Another Race-Based Handicap at Last

Critical wait times on national lists for a kidney–typically several years long–are finally being adjusted to make them more accurate and fair to African Americans. This move is all the more important because black people in the United States are nearly four times as likely as whites to have kidney failure.

I don’t think most people realize that until recently when you got your kidney-function blood test results, the same creatinine reading (level of waste products) was rated differently if you were African American. Let me illustrate with my own test results. A couple of years ago my blood tests showed a creatinine of 0.94 (higher than my usual since my donation but still fine for one kidney). Beneath the 0.94 was my eGFR (“estimated glomerular filtration rate,” or kidney function): 60. The 60 is just on the cusp of normal. Of course, as a white person, I was looking at the line that read “non-African American female.”

If I had looked instead at the next line–African American female–I’d have seen a 70 (completely normal). Note: same level of creatinine.

When the levels are lower, the differences can have serious ramifications for treatment approach because these are the numbers that categorize stage of chronic kidney disease. Ultimately, below 15 denotes kidney failure, meaning an imminent need for either dialysis or kidney transplant.

The eGFR formula had been in place in the United States since the nineties, based on a few characteristics, including muscle mass. Fortunately, in 2021, after the National Kidney Foundation and the American Society of Nephrology got together to look at the use of race in these calculations, their task force announced a new race-free calculation. Now GFR readings differ only by male and female.

Just think about the implications. The point at which someone is put on a transplant wait list, and their priority on that list, is based on numerous factors, including GFR. If patient A is listed with a higher kidney function–that is, seemingly less sick–despite the same creatinine, that naturally affects their wait time.

Now, as of January 5, 2023, in “an unprecedented move to correct racial inequity in access to kidney transplants,” all U.S. transplant centers are required to review their lists to see which black patients were listed based on the old, race-based formula, according to yesterday’s article in USA Today.

“It’s a restorative justice project in medicine,” said Dr. Martha Pavlakis, nephrologist and kidney transplantation committee chair at the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, which develops policies for transplant centers.

Given that the overall wait for a kidney is already tragically long (5 to 10 years or more), anything that unfairly misinterprets a patient’s kidney function has life-and-death consequences. These race-based formulas for interpreting kidney function have clearly contributed to the shamefully longer waits for African Americans, who make up about 35 percent of people on the wait lists (but only 13 percent of the U.S. population).

This is huge news for African Americans and for everyone concerned about health care inequities.

For related posts, resources, and information on my new book, The Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation, be sure to explore the rest of my website.


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