Article | Journal of Economic Perspectives | Spring 2014

The Market for Blood

by Robert Slonim, Carmen Wang and Ellen Garbarino

Abstract

Donating blood, "the gift of life," is among the noblest activities and it is performed worldwide nearly 100 million times annually. The economic perspective presented here shows how the gift of life, albeit noble and often motivated by altruism, is heavily influenced by standard economic forces including supply and demand, economies of scale, and moral hazard. These forces, shaped by technological advances, have driven the evolution of blood donation markets from thin one-to-one "marriage markets" in which each recipient needed a personal blood donor, to thick, impersonalized, diffuse markets. Today, imbalances between aggregate supply and demand are a major challenge in blood markets, including excess supply after disasters and insufficient supply at other times. These imbalances are not unexpected given that the blood market operates without market prices and with limited storage length (about six weeks) for whole blood. Yet shifting to a system of paying blood donors seems a practical impossibility given attitudes toward paying blood donors and concerns that a paid system could compromise blood safety. Nonetheless, we believe that an economic perspective offers promising directions to increase supply and improve the supply and demand balance even in the presence of volunteer supply and with the absence of market prices.

Keywords: market design; altruism; philanthropy; Analysis of Health Care Markets; Market Design; Giving and Philanthropy; Health;

Citation:

Slonim, Robert, Carmen Wang, and Ellen Garbarino. "The Market for Blood." Journal of Economic Perspectives 28, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 177–196.