How organ donation works 

The NHS Organ Donor Register is a confidential national database that holds the details of around 21 million people who want to donate their organs after their death.

In the event of your death, there's a chance your organs could help save someone else's life.

The NHS Organ Donor Register can be accessed by healthcare professionals to find out whether an individual has registered to be an organ donor.

If you want to be a donor, add your name to the register and tell those closest to you. This will make it easier for them to ensure donation goes ahead in the event of your death.

There are a number of ways you can join the register, including:

  • completing an online form 
  • completing a form available in GP surgeries and hospitals
  • calling the free NHS Donor Line on 0300 123 23 23 (lines are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year)
  • texting SAVE to 62323
  • when applying online for a driving licence or vehicle tax 
  • when registering with a GP
  • when registering online for a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC)

In the event of your death, the person closest to you (usually your next of kin) will be asked to confirm that you hadn't changed your mind before your death.

Many people have gained a great deal of comfort from knowing that the death of a loved one has helped save someone else's life.

The donation process

Organs are only removed for transplantation after a person has died. Death is confirmed by doctors at consultant level who are entirely independent of the transplant team. The process for confirming death is exactly the same for people who donate organs as for those who don't.

If appropriate, brain stem death testing will be carried out to confirm the person is dead. Alternatively, a joint decision may be made by medical staff, nursing staff and the person's relatives that although brain stem death hasn't occurred, the prospect of survival is so low continuing with current treatment would not be helpful.

The Organ Donor Register will be checked by a specialist nurse for organ donation to see if the potential donor is on the register. If they are, the specialist nurse will speak to the family about the person's decision to be a donor.

If the family agrees to organ donation, the specialist nurse must ensure medical tests are carried out, such as blood group and tissue type matching. They'll also look at the donor's medical history and ask the family some questions about them. This will help confirm whether or not the organ donation can take place.

You can find the answers to many common questions about organ and tissue donation on the NHS Organ Donation website. 

You can also read real stories about organ donation from people who have received organs and families who have donated their loved one's organs.

Organ donation and medical conditions

In most circumstances, having a medical condition doesn't necessarily prevent a person becoming an organ or tissue donor. The decision about whether some or all organs or tissue are suitable for transplant is made by a healthcare professional, taking the person's medical history into account.

There are three conditions where organ donation is ruled out completely. A person can't become an organ or tissue donor if they've had:

  • cancer that has spread in the last 12 months
  • a severe or untreated infection
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) – a rare condition that affects the nervous system and causes brain damage

There are also other conditions that can affect which organs can be transplanted. 

The National Transplant Database at NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) holds the records of every person in the UK waiting to receive an organ transplant. When organs from a donor become available, a computer search is carried out to find the most suitable recipients.

A team of specialist surgeons is called to the donor's hospital to remove and preserve the organs for transport to the transplant unit. Timing is crucial because certain organs need to be transplanted within four to six hours.

During the operation to retrieve the organs, the surgeon will make a final decision about whether the organs are healthy and suitable to be transplanted. If all is well, the organ will be taken to the transplant unit and transplanted immediately.

Page last reviewed: 24/11/2014

Next review due: 24/11/2017