Grieving families threaten organ donation schemes

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Over 500 families in the U.K. have prevented organ donations from deceased relatives since April 2010, refusing thousands of people the chance of a transplant -- even though they knew or were informed that their family member was on the country's organ donor register.

In a statement released on Friday, the U.K.'s NHS Blood and Transplant said that family refusals had resulted in an estimated 1,200 people "missing out on a potentially life-saving transplant." According to the organisation, roughly 1,000 people in need of a transplant die every year in the U.K., while more than 6,500 people were currently waiting for one.

"We understand that families are approached about donation at a very challenging time and that it can come as a surprise to find out a relative had made a decision to donate," Sally Johnson, director of organ donation and transplantation at NHS Blood and Transplant, said in a statement.

"This can make it difficult for families to support donation going ahead and their relative saving lives," Johnson added.

In the United States, 29,532 people received organ transplants in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), with 79 people receiving a transplant every day on average. Over 120 million people are signed up to be a donor.

According to the HHS, in 2011, "The average cost of transplantation… ranged from $262,000 for a single kidney to over $1,148,000 for a heart-lung transplant."

In light of the figures released today, NHS Blood and Transplant said it was looking at extra steps it could take when approaching bereaved families to make sure that a greater number of potential donors' wishes were honored.

While registering to be on the NHS Organ Donor Register is legally valid, if a family is strongly against the donation, it does not take place. In Wales, unless someone states that they do not wish to donate their organs, they are seen as having no objection to the process.

Ideas being explored by NHS Blood and Transplant include giving families a leaflet to explain how consent – known as 'authorization' in Scotland – lies with the deceased and not their family, and continuing to ask potential donors' families to help authorities "assess the risk of their relative donating organs… but not actually asking the next of kin to confirm consent or authorization."

Another measure being considered was asking families to sign a document "confirming their reasons for overriding their relative's decision."

It is hoped this would bring about discussion among family members and that they would then honor their relative's choice. In Scotland families already have to fill in a "retraction form" to state why they went against their relative's decision.

"We know that donor families take enormous pride from knowing that their relative helped others," Johnson said. "We also hear that some families have gone on to regret overriding a relative's decision to donate," she added.

"We think our proposed changes would make the existing legal situation clearer to families and hopefully help them support their relative's decision."