‘Have family chat about organ donation’, NHS urges

By Peter Russell
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith

4th September 2017 – Hundreds of people are missing out on potentially lifesaving organ transplants because families were unaware that their relative wanted to donate, says the NHS.

More than 3 families a week are refusing organ donation requests because they did not know their loved one’s wishes, according to NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT). It says this means around 460 organ transplants are being missed each year.

Last year 457 people died while on the active transplant waiting list. There are currently 6,414 people waiting for a transplant.

To mark Organ Donation Week, NHSBT is encouraging people to tell their families they want to become donors.

Anthony Clarkson, assistant director of organ donation, says in a statement: “It’s a tragedy: hundreds of people are dying unnecessarily every year waiting for transplants. We know that if everyone who supported donation talked about it and agreed to donate, most of those lives would be saved.”

Opt-in or opt-out

England and Northern Ireland currently operate an opt-in scheme, where people have to register to make their wish to donate organs. Wales operates a ‘soft opt-out’ system where people are deemed to have given their consent unless they ask to leave the NHS Organ Donor Register.

Scotland is expected to introduce a similar system, although relatives and close friends would still be able to object to organ donation based on what they know of the deceased’s wishes.

The system in Wales, introduced in 2015, has been credited with boosting the number of organs available for transplant. Over the last year, there has been a drop of 18.5% in patients who died while on the waiting list for their transplant, according to the Welsh government.

‘Have the chat’

However, it says in 2016 to 2017 there were 21 cases where families either overrode their relatives’ decisions to donate organs, or did not support the deemed consent. It says based on the average of 3.3 organs retrieved for each donor, this could have resulted in the loss of 69 transplant operations.

“Simply having a chat about your decision with family and friends ensures they can honour your wishes when you die,” says Welsh health secretary, Vaughan Gething.

Avoiding talking about death

Surveys by NHSBT found that although 80% of people support organ donation, only 49% of people have ever talked about it. The top 5 reasons for not ‘having the chat’ were:

It never came up – 33%
Don’t want to talk about death – 16%
Not got around to it yet – 17%
Donating organs is a personal choice, don’t need to talk about it – 14%
Others wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about it – 11%
Families who agree to donation often find it helps them deal with grief and can contribute to a sense of pride at knowing they gave others the chance of a new beginning, according to NHSBT.

“It takes 2 minutes to sign up to the Organ Donor Register, comments Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, “and even less time to have a conversation with your loved one about your wishes.

“This might seem like a difficult conversation, but it could save the lives of people in desperate need of a heart transplant, and ensure your wishes are respected after death.”