From the heart: giving organ donation the X Factor

The night before last I got home to find a letter from NHSBT on my doormat. It was a reminder to book a blood donation appointment, but in the envelope was also a flyer about joining the Organ Donor Register (ODR). Then I turned on the TV, and saw that ITV was showing something called ‘From the heart’. Coming on the eve of Valentine’s Day, I naturally feared the worst about what this could possibly entail, but a quick flick of the info button later I was surprised and intrigued to see that this was in fact an evening of awareness raising about the need for more organ donors. Literally seconds after I’d opened the NHSBT letter. A spooky coincidence? Maybe.

The first hour of From the Heart was a documentary featuring a number of people whose lives had been affected by organ donation in one way or another. These included people on the waiting list to receive an organ and their families, a transplant coordinator and the parents of a child who had died whilst on the organ transplant waiting list. Particularly interesting (given the focus of the Council’s report Human bodies: donation for medicine, on the donor and the act of donation), was an interview with the family of a young man who became an organ donor following his death in a car accident in 2000.

The Council’s report has a chapter on supply and demand of donated organs, and we heard some statistics again during the course of last night’s programme. We were told that:*

  • Each of us is 4 or 5 times more likely to find ourselves in need of a donated organ than to become an organ donor.
  • 73% of us would accept a donated organ, yet 62% of us have not signed up (or are unsure if we have signed up) to the ODR.
  • More than 40% of families refuse permission for donation of their loved ones organs (though as we noted in the report, this reduces to just 1% of families if their relative is known to be on the ODR).
  • 69% are in favour of an opt-out system, with 31% unsure or with a clear wish to opt out.

*According to surveys carried out by ITV – scope and size unspecified.

Personally I felt that the documentary did a good job of exploring a range of points of view, and covering lots of different issues that arise with organ donation. I liked the ‘myth or fact’ questions with the transplant consultant, although on the question of whether organs from an older/unwell/not-in-the-peak-of-fitness person would still get used, I thought there was a missed opportunity to mention the potential use of donated organs for research, as well as in transplants – this is something that the Council recommended should be made clearer in public information about the ODR. (Although interestingly the consultant informed us that many chronically ill people can become donors, with their unaffected organs used for transplants – something that I hadn’t been really aware of).

Something else I learned was from how far away the donated organs can come. Featured on the programme was Aaron, a five year old who received a heart transplant in Newcastle, with a donated heart that had arrived from Germany. Aside from questions about the logistical organisation of such a thing, it also left me wondering just who had donated the heart. Would it have come from someone the same age as Aaron? Is there a minimum age at which a child can become an organ donor? How do cross-European donations work? Sadly, there wasn’t time to go into all of these questions.

For the hour was quickly up, and now we were now onto a celebrity filled, entertainment/awareness raising show to follow up – sort of a cross between X Factor and Comic Relief, to my mind anyway. Except it wasn’t your money or your votes that Dermot and co. were after, it was your organs. Kind of. More accurately, it was your decision to sign up to the ODR.

Having been on the ODR for many years myself, I can’t say whether celebrity endorsement would sway me personally. But the power of celebrity works a treat for Comic Relief, Sport Relief and numerous other campaigns, so why not jump on that bandwagon I say. Couple some celebrity glitz with pop interludes, inspiring stories such as the British Transplant Games, and a prime time slot on a freezing cold February evening and I’d say that was a pretty good plan for some serious awareness raising. And it falls at the bottom of the intervention ladder for donation – no coercion or incentives required. All indications are that the NHS organ donor website has been inundated as a result. Great.

One last thing. The importance of reducing demand for donated organs through public health initiatives aimed at reducing preventable diseases is something that the Council strongly supports. Incidentally in the first advert break there was an advert for how to get support on quitting smoking. Another spooky coincidence? Maybe not.

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