Let it flow

First-time blood donors don’t always make it from booking an appointment to actually showing up. To overcome this, Professor Barbara Masser from UQ’s School of Psychology has used the power of preparation to relieve donors’ fears and boost attendance rates.

Donating blood is one of the easiest and cheapest forms of altruism possible, which is why around 600,000 Australians do it every year. However, the decision to donate can sometimes be just the first hurdle.

In 2015, Professor Masser continued a 15-year collaboration with the Australian Red Cross Blood Service on a first-time donor campaign after noticing a concerning statistic – over 18 per cent of first-time donors simply did not show up for their appointments. This meant that not only did the potential donation not make it to those patients in need, but also that the time and resources couldn’t be allocated to another donor in that session.

As the newly appointed Chair of Donor Research, a position jointly created by UQ and the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, Professor Masser was determined to improve that statistic, acting on a hunch that fear of the unknown was the main cause of donor absenteeism.

“People who made an appointment were obviously prepared to act, but didn’t always translate that into actual action,” she said.

“At some stage between deciding in a cold, rational state that donating was the right thing to do, in the days or weeks before their appointments these donors moved to a more emotionally driven ‘hot’ state, possibly due to anxiety, rationalising excuses such as ‘I’m too busy’ or ‘I don’t have to do this – if I don’t, it doesn’t really matter'."

Professor Masser worked closely with the Blood Service to create a suite of communication tools that prepared first-time donors for their appointment, while at the same time boosting their confidence by explaining the appointment structure, what to expect, and how to manage possible reactions.

“If you think of somewhere you’ve just gone for the first time, usually you’ll feel some level of anxiety about going there, which is heightened when things like needles and medical equipment are involved,” she said.

“However, if someone gave you a ‘script’ beforehand that prepared you for what you’d see, experience, and have to do, you’d immediately feel more in control and confident.

“So, our aim was to give people a script for what happens at their first donation, and to see if we could improve the statistics.”

This simple refocus in communication was worth the investment – for a mere two per cent spending increase, the study directly increased first-time donor attendance by eight per cent. As a result, the Blood Service’s strategy now includes the donor preparation process as part of its business-as-usual communication.

Blood Service Director of Research and Development Professor David Irving says that the results are incredibly valuable.

“We now have more certainty that donors will follow up on their commitment, meaning we can manage Australia’s blood supply more effectively,” he said.

“Innovative, leading-edge research is fundamental to the success of the Blood Service.”

In January 2018, the Blood Service conducted an analysis that showed the new strategy has had an extra unexpected benefit. First-time donors are having fewer vasovagal reactions – that is, feeling dizzy, lightheaded or faint while they donate – meaning they are more likely to donate again.

High school student Georgie Groth is one donor who directly benefited from the strategy. She donated blood for the first time earlier this year and, like most first-timers, experienced some pre-donation nerves.

“I was a bit scared it was going to hurt, but mainly I was just excited to help someone in need,” she said.

Blood Service staff helped prepare her over the phone before she arrived, and sent a post-appointment brochure in newspaper-style format that congratulated her for saving lives.

“I found the message really positive – it focused on how appreciative they were,” she said.

“Honestly, I thought it was so effective – I have it up on my wall and I just felt so special.”

Ms Groth was so impressed with her experience that she is eager to donate again.

“Aside from the great food and service, you get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped someone.

“It’s a great feeling.”

As a social scientist, Associate Professor Masser brings a unique perspective to the Blood Service’s operations and is thoroughly embedded in all research that impacts donors, meaning she can link together different campaigns and initiatives and increase the depth of research possible. This offers many benefits for her research and teaching, including access to ‘real world’ settings and participants for studies, and opportunities for her postgraduate students to engage with industry on active projects prior to graduation.

Professor Masser also sees the ongoing collaboration with the Blood Service as a valuable platform to collaborate in future on similar research, but in other forms of body altruism.

“This area represents a true integration of basic and applied science,” she said.

“I deal a lot with blood donors, whom we know are different from people who donate time or money.

“My vision is to start the conversation with world-leading researchers in other areas where people donate parts of themselves to improve the lives of others.

“There will obviously be some differences in motivation and approach but, by breaking down our silos and combining resources, we could significantly build our collective capacity to uncover some fascinating insights and optimise the processes of donor recruitment and retention.”

Hear more from Professor Masser on the ChangeMakers podcast or subscribe to the series on iTunes.

You can also support UQ’s School of Psychology as it engineers solutions to complex social health issues.

Credits: opening video: Getty Images/shironosov; blood bags: Getty Images/Bet_Noire; blood donor and nurse: Australian Red Cross.

First-time donor Georgie's post-appointment brochure she received in a newspaper-style format congratulating her for saving lives.

First-time donor Georgie's post-appointment brochure she received in a newspaper-style format congratulating her for saving lives.