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England considering opt-out system for organ donation

Doctors welcome consultation on opt-out and other strategies to increase donation rates in England

Louise Prime

Thursday, 05 October 2017

Doctors have welcomed the prime minister’s announcement that the government is to launch a consultation on introducing an opt-out system for organ donation in England, to improve levels of donation and transplantation, after many years of ‘tireless’ campaigning by the BMA on this issue. The BMA said any resulting change of policy would need to be well publicised, and would have to be backed up by the resources and facilities to enable more transplants to be done.

Theresa May announced yesterday that by the end of this year, the government will launch a 12-week public consultation on increasing organ donation, including a proposal to introduce a new opt-out system for organ donation for England, by which everyone will be automatically entered on the donor register unless they decide to opt out. A model of ‘presumed consent’ was introduced in Wales in 2015, and earlier this year the Scottish government announced its intention to introduce similar legislation.

The Department of Health said that although in 2016 to 2018 there were 1,169 deceased organ donors and 3,293 transplants in England – the highest ever rate of organ donation – there are still more people waiting for transplants than there are organs available, so some die before a suitable organ becomes available. In black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, waiting times for an organ are particularly long, and consent rates for organ donation are only 35%, compared with 66% for the white population.

The consultation will cover: how government can increase rates of organ donation, particularly from BAME communities; how the issue of consent should be managed within the NHS; what role technology could play in helping people to discuss their preferences with family; how opt-out could work in practice, what safeguards would be necessary, and how families could be supported.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt commented: “Just as most people would be willing to accept an organ if their life was at risk, most people would be willing to donate one to help save somebody else. All these issues will be looked at in the consultation and we welcome all those with views to come forward with their contributions.”

The BMA responded that it has lobbied and campaigned tirelessly on this issue for years, and welcomed the ‘excellent news’ on the decision to introduce an opt-out system, which it said could save many lives. Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: “It is important that the new process is well publicised to ensure the public are fully aware of and understand this important change. The health service must also have the resources, as well as facilities, to ensure transplant procedures can be performed when they are needed.”

NHS Blood and Transplant said it welcomed not only the commitment to increasing rates of donation and transplantation, but anything that drives a national conversation about organ donation. Sally Johnson, director of organ donation and transplantation, said: “Whatever legislation is in place, telling your family of your organ donation decision lets them know what you want to happen and means your family don’t have to make a difficult decision when they are grieving … It’s particularly important that black and Asian people talk about organ donation as without their donations their communities will continue to suffer.”

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