Intended for healthcare professionals


Decline in altruism threatens blood supplies

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: (Published 21 November 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:1405
  1. Annabel Ferriman
  1. BMJ

    The National Blood Authority is worried about the future of blood supplies after the publication of research suggesting that altruism is slowly declining as a feature of British society.

    “We commissioned research because we are constantly struggling to keep up with the demand for blood, which is rising at 3-4% a year,” said Sue Cunningham, spokeswoman for the authority. “We also have to deal with the government waiting list initiative.”

    The research, presented at a conference in London last week, showed that there has been a slow but steady decline in altruism over the past 25 years. The number of families who give to charity fell from 34% to 29% between 1974 and 1996 (although those who donated gave more), and the proportion of people doing voluntary work fell from 51% to 48% between 1991 and 1997. This last trend was particularly marked for 18-24 year olds, among whom volunteering fell from 55% to 43%.

    Although donating blood has in many ways escaped the downward trend in altruism (the number of donors has remained at about two million for the past six years), the research suggested that many young people had a strong resistance to “doing good.” One young man said: “I have other ways of feelinggood, rather than helping other people. I like to go out with my friends, and I like to drink a lot of beer. I like to sit and watch TV. I'm not always helping other people.”

    Another said: “I reckon when you're young you haven't got much time on your hands. We've got to go out to the pub with our mates because otherwise we're missing something.”

    The qualitative study was carried out in September. Re-searchers talked with 100 adults, aged from 18 to 70, in 12 focus groups across the country.The investigators recruited these participants from a larger pool of adultswith a range of backgrounds by means of a questionnaire.

    The focus groups, which lasted one and a half hours, discussed general ideas about “helping others” and “community spirit” before moving on to blood donation. The researchers found that those who gave blood were similar toother participants except that they “thought slightly more about other people.”

    The main barrier to giving blood was fear: fear of needles, fear of making a fool of yourself by fainting, and fear of discovering that you had a serious disease. Fear was more important than a lack of time; interviewees thought that the time it would take would be quite small–one or two hours twice a year.

    Most important of all was the fact that the need for blood was not on people's minds. They knew that hospitals needed blood but not how urgent the need was.

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