Families stop donation of organs from deceased relatives who are registered donors

Hundreds of families across England block the donation of organs from deceased relatives, despite the deceased having chosen to sign the Organ Donation Register.

Credit: vchal/Shutterstock.com

Over the last five years, organs from 505 registered donors were not made available to people who needed a transplant because relatives objected to the donation.

NHS estimates showed that across England, 457 people died last year whilst waiting for a transplant. The number of deceased potential donors was 1,413, but 91 opportunities for donation were blocked by families. The NHS hopes to prevent these “overrides” by encouraging willing donors to discuss the matter with their families.

The law states that consent lies with the individual who chose to be a donor, but in practice, families often make the final decision. Nurses from NHS Blood and Transplant work with families when a prospective donor dies and encourage acceptance of the loved one’s decision. However, if a family still objects, the donation does not go ahead.

Organ donation nurse Ben Cole who works in the Midlands says he finds the matter frustrating, but understands that families are approached about donation at a very difficult time and that it can be a shock to discover their loved one had decided to donate: "If they are strongly opposed to donation, we would not want to upset them further.”

Anthony Clarkson, assistant director of organ donation and transplantation for NHS Blood and Transplant says the number of blocked transplants is on the decline, but that a number of families feel they cannot support their relative’s decision, meaning hundreds of opportunities for potentially lifesaving transplants are missed every year.

However, practical ethics researcher, Rebecca Brown, (University of Oxford) supports families being able to decide. Given that the sudden loss of a loved one is very traumatic, she says, forcing relatives to go ahead with donation when they are opposed to the idea would be very distressing: "This is a relatively small number of families and going against their wishes would be frankly awful for them and would create all sorts of problems."

Introducing presumed consent for organ donation and a consultation is due to take place before the year ends.

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally first developed an interest in medical communications when she took on the role of Journal Development Editor for BioMed Central (BMC), after having graduated with a degree in biomedical science from Greenwich University.

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