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Having a heart to heart

Posted by on May 12, 2014

 Francesca Soutter, policy intern at the Society of Biology, writes about her experience of a recent Parliament evidence session on blood, tissue and organ screening.

Is the British stiff upper lip preventing us from discussing our wishes with our nearest and dearest should the worst happen? Organ donation rates in the UK are lagging behind those of our European neighbours,  our refusal rate second only to the Netherlands with 43% of family members refusing consent to donate a loved one’s organs.  Despite an overall drive since 2008 to increase  donation to 50% since 2008, most improvements have come from better co-ordination between NHS  teams  and the use of live donors and not from increased family consent rates.  Consent rates are even lower amongst Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities.

This was discussed in the recent committee inquiry on blood,tissue and organ screening  where Professor Neuberger, Associate Medical Director NHS Blood and Transplant, said: “We are making overall progress in that donation and transplants are continuing to increase. We reached the 50% target by a whisker last year, and donations have increased by a further 10% this year. We are making progress, but there is still a long way to go.”

The UK currently operates an ‘opt in’ policy where the public can consent to donation of their organs, in case of brain stem or circulatory death, on the NHS Organ Donor Register.  However the ultimate decision is often made by the potential donor’s family even in the event that the donor has registered their wish to donate.

The Taking Organ Transplantation to 2020 strategy aims to improve donor conversion rates and  improve the system of delivering organs from donor to recipient, as well as increase overall numbers of donors in the UK.  Meanwhile in a bid to increase donor numbers the Welsh Government has recently passed legislation, Human Transplantation (Wales) Act which will make organ donation an ‘opt out’ system as of the 1st December 2015.

There are concerns that a UK wide ‘opt out’ system might reduce choice and pressurise people  to donate organs against their wishes and would fail to protect vulnerable members of society and minority groups.  However with increasing demand for organs for transplantation it may be a realistic option if carefully implemented.

As individuals the best way to exercise our choice might involve a tricky conversation with those closest to you, but if the situation arises, it is surely better for everyone to know exactly what you would have wanted, and it might well save a life!

Find out more about the Organ Donor Register.

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