What is organ donation?
Organ donation is giving an organ to help someone who needs a transplant. Kidneys, heart, liver, lungs, pancreas and the small bowel can all be transplanted.
Transplants are one of the biggest achievements of modern medicine and can save or greatly enhance the lives of other people. However, they depend completely on donors and their families consenting to organ or tissue donation. One donor can save the life of several people, restore the sight of two others and improve the quality of life of many more.
In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, organs and tissue from a potential donor will only be used if that is their wish. Consent is needed first. Giving consent can be done by joining the National Health Service (NHS) Organ Donor Register (see 'Resources'), or by people discussing their wishes with their loved ones. If their wishes are not clear, the person closest to them in life will be asked what they think they would have wanted. This is why it is important that people make sure they are aware of their loved one’s views on organ donation (see ‘Consenting to organ donation’). Wales, has has an ‘opt-out’ system where, unless a person opts-out of organ donation, it is assumed that he or she has no objection to becoming an organ donor (1st December 2015). (This is currently also being debated in the Scottish Parliament).
Joining the Organ Donor Register is a way of giving legal consent for donation to take place. Everyone can join the NHS Organ Donation Register regardless of age or health, as long as they are considered legally competent. It is the person’s physical condition rather than their age, that is the deciding factor. Having a medical condition does not necessarily prevent a person from becoming an organ or tissue donor. The decision about whether some or all organs or tissue are suitable for transplant is made by a doctor, taking into account a person’s medical history. Anyone who has been diagnosed with HIV or has, or is suspected of having, CJD, cannot become an organ or tissue donor.
Every year hundreds of people die while waiting for an organ transplant or before they even get on to the transplant list. There is a serious shortage of organs and the gap between the number of organs donated and the number of people waiting for a transplant is increasing. The shortage of organs has led to an increasing number of organ donations by living people, usually a kidney (see 'Experiences of living donors').
Black and minority ethnic communities
People from Black African, Black Caribbean and South Asian communities living in the UK are more likely to need a kidney transplant than the rest of the population. “On average they'll wait a year longer for a kidney transplant than a white patient.” (NHS Choices Nov 2014)
This is because people from these communities are more likely to develop diabetes or high blood pressure, both of which are major causes of kidney failure.
Unfortunately, while the need for donor organs is high, the donation rates are relatively low among Black and South Asian communities, reducing the chance of a successful match being found (see 'Life before the transplant').
Therefore not only are members of these communities at higher risk of kidney failure, it is also harder to find a suitable donor and waiting lists are growing. Although living donor kidney transplantation can help some of these patients, it is also essential to increase the number of people from these communities who are willing to donate organs after their death (see ‘Views on organ donation’).
All the major religions of the UK support the principles of organ donation and transplantation.
What is tissue donation?
Tissue donation is giving tissue such as corneas, skin, bone, tendons, cartilage and heart valves to help others.
Every year thousands of people with a severe eye disease or injury have their sight restored by donated corneas. Bone, tendons and cartilage are used for reconstruction after an injury or during joint replacement surgery. A bone transplant can prevent limb amputation in patients suffering from bone cancer.
Heart valves are used to help children born with heart defects and adults with diseased or damaged valves. Skin grafts are used to treat people with severe burns.
Bone marrow can also be donated. Bone marrow is a soft tissue found in the centre of certain bones in your body. Donors must be aged between 18 and 49 years old and be a blood donor.
Most people can donate tissue. Unlike organs, it may be possible to donate tissue up to 48 hours after a person has died.
Last reviewed May 2016.
Last updated May 2016.