Organ donation specialist has ‘real fears’ about opt out scheme

Declan Grace, lead clinician for organ donation.
Declan Grace, lead clinician for organ donation.

One of Northern Ireland’s most senior doctors has come out against proposals which would presume that everyone in Northern Ireland is a willing organ donor, unless they or their family opt out.

Dr Declan Grace, the lead clinician in charge of organ donation in the Western Health Trust, said he had “great concerns” about the implications of the suggested changes, fearing that mistrust could be created between medics and patients.

Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson is attempting to introduce a ‘soft opt out’ system through a private member’s bill.

But some MLAs – particularly in the DUP – have ethical objections to the concept that the state should assume that its citizens’ organs can be given to another person without the individual’s express permission.

Speaking at a public meeting of the Western Health and Social Care Trust, Dr Grace said he thought that an opt out system would lead to an “initial subtle uplift” in the number of people signing the donor register or expressing interest. But he expressed fears about the long-term implications of the policy.

According to a Derry Journal report of his comments at the meeting, Dr Grace said that the impact could eventually be similar to that of the organ retention scandal last decade which led to a “marked downturn” in the number of families giving consent for their loved one’s organs to be donated.

“Anyone who works in organ donation would tell you we have real fears about the impact this could have in the future,” he said.

Wales is the first part of the UK to have voted to introduce presumed consent for organ donation.

Last week the Health Minister, Edwin Poots, deferred a decision about the issue for another 12 months, something Ms Dobson said could lead to 15 people dying for want of a donor.

But, referring to the wider policy debate about an ‘opt out’ system, Dr Grace described the issue as a “pantomime” in comparison to the more pressing factors related to donation.

He said: “The most important thing we can do with organ donation is to encourage people to talk to their next of kin and their families to let them know their wishes as regards donation.

“As a team we are at a huge advantage if the patient’s family are aware of their loved one’s wishes – it makes a huge difference.”

He said that the Western Trust is continuing to outperform the rest of the UK in the area, with 11 people donating 44 organs and eight tissue samples over the last year.

Two rival bills to boost donors

Two unionist MLAs who share the same objective of increasing the number of donors are leading the organ donation debate.

Jo-Anne Dobson, whose son Mark is the recipient of a kidney, has spoken passionately about her belief that a ‘soft opt out’ system will boost donors.

DUP MLA Alastair Ross has proposed a system whereby those applying for a driving licence would have to make a choice for or against donation.