Organ donation - How it works 

How organ donation works 

If you wish to join the NHS Organ Donor Register, click the logo above or call 0300 123 23 23 

The NHS Organ Donor Register is a confidential national database that holds the details of more than 19 million people who want to donate their organs after their death.

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

The register can be accessed by healthcare professionals to find out whether an individual has registered to be an organ donor.

By adding your name to the NHS Organ Donor Register, everyone will be aware of your wishes, making it easier for them to agree to your donation. You can join the register in a number of ways, including:

  • completing an online form on the NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) website 
  • completing a form available in GP surgeries, libraries, hospitals and pharmacies
  • calling the NHS Donor Line on 0300 123 23 23
  • when applying for a driving licence
  • when registering with a GP
  • when registering for a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC)

When registering, it is important you tell the people closest to you about your decision. In the event of your death, the person closest to you (usually your next of kin) will be asked to confirm that you had not 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 the life of another person.

The donation process

If appropriate, brain stem death testing will be carried out by hospital staff to confirm the patient is dead. Alternatively, a joint decision may be made by medical staff, nursing staff and the patient's relatives that although brain stem death has not occurred, the prospect of survival is so low it is not helpful to continue with artificial ventilation.

The Organ Donor Register will be checked by a Specialist Nurse for Organ Donation to see if the patient is on the register. If they are, the specialist nurse will speak to the family about the patient's wishes.

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 will 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 Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) website. 

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

Organ donation and medical conditions

In most circumstances, 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 healthcare professional, taking into account your medical history

There are three conditions where organ donation is ruled out completely. A person cannot become an organ or tissue donor if they have 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 

The National Transplant Database at NHS Blood and Transplant 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, the surgeon will make a final decision about whether the organs are healthy and suitable to be transplanted. If all is well, the organ is received at the transplant unit and transplanted immediately.

Types of living donation

Under the Human Tissue Act 2004 and the Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006, an organ such as a kidney can be donated by a living kidney donor in two ways:

  • Anonymous kidney donation – where the kidney is donated to someone who the donor has never met (this is sometimes called non-directed altruistic donation)
  • Paired donation – if a relative or spouse wishes to donate but is not a match for the person who needs a transplant, the couple can be paired with a similar donor and recipient who do not match. This allows each recipient to benefit from a transplant that they would not otherwise have had.

Read more information about living kidney donation on the NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) website.

Page last reviewed: 19/10/2012

Next review due: 19/10/2014


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The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

amc1 said on 18 July 2012

How dare the nhs arrogantly disregard everyones rights and assume responsibility for your body after death. This attitude is as sickening . No wonder its failing. Your body your birth right and your choice to do with it as you see fit. Take note nhs !!!

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Mutton Smile said on 12 December 2011

There appear to be no safeguards to stop others registering or de-registering for individuals. No checks are made on the registration process. It seems consent disappears as a duty once you are dead.

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