Saving lives with the help of human organ transplants

Donations have increased in the UK but 1,000 patients a year die while on waiting lists. Should we introduce an opt-out system?

Tes Editorial

The number of people in the UK donating their organs after death has risen by 50 per cent since 2008. But concerns remain that the wishes of the dead are being overruled by their families.

Transplants - most commonly of kidneys, hearts, lungs or livers - save lives. In 2012, more than 1,200 people donated organs in the UK, allowing about 3,100 transplants to take place. But despite the increase, the UK still has one of the lowest transplant rates in Europe and an estimated 1,000 patients each year die on waiting lists for organs. Now senior doctors are calling for a change in the law surrounding donation.

They are concerned that some families are overruling patients' wishes and refusing to allow their organs to be used. Start a discussion in your classroom about whether relatives should have this right. In 125 cases in the UK last year, family members intervened to prevent a donation, even though their dead relatives had signed the NHS's Organ Donor Register, which contains details of more than 19.5 million potential donors.

In 2008, the Organ Donation Taskforce, a government panel, made a series of suggestions for measures to increase the rate of donation. However, it also recommended retaining the current opt-in system instead of implementing an opt-out system.

Many doctor and patient groups, on the other hand, want all individuals to be considered potential donors unless they specify otherwise. Government ministers are planning to introduce a policy of presumed consent in Wales, although there are no plans for a similar move in England. What do your students think?

The rise in donations in the UK has been attributed to specialist nurses who have "difficult conversations" with bereaved families about the benefits of organ donation. One of them is Andrea Bradley, who went into the job after her father received a corneal transplant.

"You are asking a family to make a decision at the most difficult time of their lives. I give them all the information and hold nothing back," she says. Her skill is assessing whether families are ready to digest what they are being asked. But she adds: "No one has ever been angry with me when I suggest the possibility of organ donation."

Elisabeth Buggins, who chaired the Organ Donation Taskforce, says that donor families often gain a great deal of comfort from the decision to donate their relative's organs. "I know families who keep a letter telling them where the organs have gone, as a comfort they take with them every day," she says.

Class questions

- If people want to donate organs, should families have the right to overrule this after death?

- Should research be conducted into whether animal organs could be modified for use in humans?

- Are there any circumstances in which it would be wrong to transplant body parts?

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