Ethnic Codes and Blood Donation: What’s the Big Deal?

March 4, 2015 at 9:35 am

Doctor with DNA imageAs of February 26, 2015, Stanford Blood Center (SBC) implemented a slight change to the blood donation screening process. Staff is asking all donors to select his/her ethnicity from a new list of ethnic codes. If you are a repeat donor, you may recall being asked this in the past; however, with the adoption of a new and more accurate list of ethnic group categories, donors will be asked again until all records are up to date.

With the addition of this more detailed ethnic information being attached to donor profiles, SBC hopes to help save even more lives by more accurately connecting patients to the blood products they need.

The relationship between ethnic groups and blood donation

Like eye color and hair color, people inherit certain characteristics present on the red blood cells, called antigens. Since heritable traits tend to travel within ethnic groups, patients and donors with similar red blood cell antigens are more likely to be from the same ethnic background. These specific characteristics used for matching donors and patients are especially important when there is a red blood antigen that is very rare in the general donor population but may be found at a higher frequency in specific ethnic groups. Therefore, having ethnic information could potentially help SBC find donors with these rare antigens.

The new and improved ethnic codes list is based on a list created by the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) and was modified to meet the needs of SBC. The old SBC ethnic code list contained categories that were too broad. For example, previously donors could pick “Asian” but not a distinct subset of Asian, such as Chinese, Japanese or Korean. A specific Asian subset may have an antigen that other Asian subsets do not. As a result, screening for rare antigens proved to be difficult since SBC could not look at the specific subgroup in which it is present. Having a more defined ethnic code that accurately reflects a donor’s ethnicity will allow SBC to more expediently find these rare antigen units and ultimately provide these units to patients who need them.

SBC would like to thank donors in advance for their cooperation in helping us better meet the needs of patients. To make an appointment or learn more about SBC, please visit