Passing the Test: How Donated Blood is Screened to Keep Us Safe

There are a lot of misconceptions about giving and receiving blood.

Part of my job as a blood donor recruiter here at Incept is to do my best to educate donors and bust some of the myths that might make a potential donor a little uneasy about donating. One of the biggest worries blood recipients (and even some donors) face is whether or not the blood being sent to the hospitals is safe.

Ensuring a safe blood supply is one of the primary focuses of both hospitals and blood centers across the country. From donation to transfusion, blood is carefully screened and tested to be sure that it’s safe for transfusion.

There are two “checkpoints” through which blood must pass before it can be given to a patient:

  • Stage 1: Donor Screening - The first test that blood has to pass is the donor screening stage. When a potential blood donor stops by their neighborhood donor center, or a local blood drive, they must fill out a brief medical questionnaire and be checked over by a phlebotomist before they donate. The questionnaire asks the donor about any medications they may be taking, health conditions they might have, if and where they’ve traveled outside of the country, and a few other miscellaneous questions (i.e., if they’ve received a tattoo or piercing within the last year, etc.). The phlebotomist takes the donor’s temperature and blood pressure, and checks their hemoglobin levels. This step ensures that the donor is healthy and well – not just so that the blood is safe for someone else but also that the donor will have a successful and comfortable time donating.

After the donation, donors are given a card with the serial number of their unit of blood on it. Then they are asked to call if they become ill over the next few days. This helps ensure that the blood isn’t carrying an illness the donor might have had but been unaware of when they donated. The blood in question would then be discarded, ensuring that it isn’t given to someone who may already be in bad shape.

  • Stage 2: Blood Testing-After donation, the blood is sent to the lab to be tested. Some of the things the lab technicians look for are infections of  hepatitis B and C, West Nile virus, Chagas disease, human T-cell leukemia, AIDS/HIV, syphilis and even mad cow disease in some places. They also double-check the blood typing and RH group of the blood to be sure that it’s given to a patient of the right blood type. If the blood comes back as positive for any of the diseases, the technicians discard the blood and make a note to inform the donor of what they found.

It may seem like a lot of work, but all of these tests help ensure that we have a safe blood supply available to our hospitals when we need it. Thanks to donor screening, blood testing and  type matching, you can rest assured that the blood that hospitals end up receiving came from a healthy donor and, most importantly, is safe.