WHILE research has found that most people in Northern Ireland would apparently be quite happy to accept an organ transplant if they needed one, only 35% of the population have gone to the trouble of actually signing the NHS Organ Donor Register.
As a result of this failure to support organ donation efforts, around 15 people die here each year while waiting for an organ transplant.
Joining the Register is a very simple process (see below) but it should also be noted that even after a person goes to the trouble of doing this, it is by no means certain that their wishes will actually be followed when they die. This is because our current system has major weaknesses. Primary among these is the fact that relatives are allowed to refuse the final act of organ donation to go ahead.
According to the Public Health Agency (PHA), 38% of families in Northern Ireland refuse to give permission for doctors to remove organs from a loved one who has died and who had already registered as a donor. This compares with a refusal rate of 15% in countries such as Spain.
Research has also found that a common reason for families refusing to agree to a relative’s organs being donated was because they had been unaware of their loved one’s wishes.
Making wishes known
The PHA has backed campaigns to encourage families to spend time discussing the issue of organ donation. To this end an Organ Donation Discussion Day was even held in the past.
Anyone who signs-up to the register is encouraged to make their wishes known to relatives. But because families continue to be given what effectively amounts to a Veto, there can be no guarantee that even after an individual goes to the trouble of discussing their wishes that they will eventually be respected.
Remove the Veto?
One answer to this problem might be to consider removing the rights of family members to refuse permission. Those in authority might baulk at taking this course of action. But some observers believe there is no use authorities continually complaining about the lack of available donors if the existing system can be so easily undermined.
The lack of political will for making any meaningful changes to the rules covering organ donation in Northern Ireland was clearly illustrated earlier this year when a clause in a private members bill at the Stormont Assembly, which would have introduced a ’soft opt-out’ system, was rejected.
The opt-out option included in the bill proposed by Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson, would have resulted in everyone being automatically included on the Organ Donation Register with the obligation on those who did not wish to remain as a potential donor to remove their names.
After the Stormont Health Committee rejected the clause, Ms. Dobson expressed her disappointment, describing it as a “dark day”. She added: “It would have given hope to those waiting on a life-saving transplant, it would have made a vast difference to them”.
Wales shows the way
The ’soft opt-out’ system, which is also known as ’deemed consent’ has already been introduced in Wales.
Politicians introduced the system there in December last year, after being faced with research which showed that 9 out of 10 people supported organ donation but only 3 out of 10 people signed up to the Organ Donation Register.
The British Heart Foundation was among those to welcome the new law in Wales. It said the rest of the United Kingdom should follow suit.
Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Simon Hamilton has pledged to carefully watch how the initiative in Wales affects their organ donation consent rates.
The Minister said: “Wales has a similar NHS system to Northern Ireland and I expect that we will be able to learn from their experience and use it to carefully consider the future for organ donation in Northern Ireland along with the views of local transplant clinicians and other stakeholders”.
Join the register
Joining the donor organ register is straightforward. Register online or you can download a form to complete you registration by post. If you want to talk to someone about joining then contact the NHS Donor Line on 0300 123 23 33. This service is available 24 hours a day.
Visit the Northern Ireland Organ Donation website.
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