The government has announced the introduction of a new “soft” opt-out system for organ and tissue donation in England, in order to tackle a shortage of donors.
Hundreds of lives would be saved each year, under the plans to change the law to a new system of consent that shifts the balance of presumption in favour of organ donation, it said today.
“We believe that by making these changes, we can save as many as 700 more lives every year”
Under the plans for the new system, virtually everyone will be considered an organ donor unless they have explicitly recorded a wish not to be.
The legislation was introduced in parliament last July and is expected to return to the House of Commons in the autumn.
If passed, it would bring England into line with Wales where a soft opt-out system of consent for organ and tissue donation was introduced in 2015.
The proposed new system is expected to come into effect in England in spring 2020, as part of a wider drive to help people waiting for a life-saving transplant.
There will be a 12-month transition period to allow time for discussion with friends and family about organ donation preferences.
Those excluded from the change are children under 18 years old, individuals who lack the mental capacity to understand it and people who have not lived in England for at least a year before death.
In addition, the donor register will include an option for individuals to state important religious and cultural beliefs to ensure these are respected, said the government.
“Specialist nurses play a key role in delivering care before and after transplant”
In a statement it noted that there would also be strict safeguards in place and “specialist nurses would always discuss donation with families, so an individual’s wishes are respected”.
It said those who do not wish to donate their organs will still be able to record their decision on the NHS Organ Donor Register, either via NHS Blood and Transplant’s website or by calling their helpline.
The NHS app, launching at the end of this year, will also make it even easier for people to record their decision, it added.
Jackie Doyle-Price, minister for mental health and inequalities, said: “Organ donation saves lives. We believe that by making these changes, we can save as many as 700 more lives every year.
However, she highlighted that the change to the new system on its alone would “not a magic bullet” for tackling shortages of organ donation.
“We need to address myths and misconceptions around donation, and we will only do this by having informed debate and dialogue, which I hope will be fostered by these proposals,” she said.
“Implementation will benefit from better training for health professionals and an information campaign for the public”
While welcoming the move, the Royal College of Nursing called for investment in “vital” specialist nurses to support the new system.
Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: “Nursing staff overwhelming support moving to a soft opt-out system for organ donation.
“When hundreds are still dying for want of a donor, this new system could give more of them a fighting chance,” noted Ms Davies.
“But the patient journey does not end when they receive a transplant,” she said. “They need lifetime support and care to ensure transplanted organs are not rejected and life with their new organ is lived well.
Ms Davies highlighted that “specialist nurses play a key role in delivering care before and after transplant”.
“To enable the predicted increase in organs for donation the government must provide increased financial investment into this vital workforce,” she said.
She added that the college was not “looking forward” to working with Department of Health and Social Care in “implementing and supporting the roll out of this life saving service”.
The RCN has previously announced its formal support for an opt-out system of consent for organ and tissue donation after death across the UK.
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Professor Dame Jane Dacre, president of the Royal Collge of Physicians, also welcomed the government’s plans to implement a new system of consent, saying she supported “initiatives that will increase the number of organ donations”.
But she added: “Any new system for recording and acting on advance decisions must be robust and well managed, and handled sensitively by health professionals. Implementation will benefit from better training for health professionals and an information campaign for the public.”
In June, the Scottish government tabled similar legislation at Holyrood to shift Scotland to an “opt-out” system for organ donation. However, attempts to introduce opt-out legislation in Northern Ireland failed in 2016.