Organ donation 


Video: organ donation

Organ recipients and donors' relatives explain what organ donation meant to them.

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Organ donation is the process of a person donating their organs for transplant. These are given to someone with damaged organs that need to be replaced.

An organ transplant may save a person's life, or significantly improve their health and quality of life.

The need for donors

Between April 1 2011 and March 31 2012, 3,960 organ transplants were carried out in the UK thanks to the generosity of 2,143 donors. However, there are always significantly more people waiting for an organ transplant than there are suitable donors. For example, in November 2012, more than 7,593 people were still waiting for transplants.

Read more about waiting times for a transplant on the NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) website. 

There is a particular need for more people of African, African-Caribbean and south Asian ethnicities to join the Organ Donor Register. This is because donation rates among these ethnic groups are low.

Black people are three times more likely to develop kidney failure than the general population, and the need for donated organs in Asian communities is three to four times higher than in the general population.

There is no age limit to becoming a donor. A person's physical condition, not age, is the deciding factor. Specialist healthcare professionals decide in each case which organs and tissue are suitable. Organs and tissue from people in their 70s and 80s are transplanted successfully.

Most people waiting for a donated organ need to have a kidney, heart, lung or liver transplant. One donor can help several people because a single donor can donate a number of organs, including:

  • kidneys
  • liver
  • heart
  • lungs
  • small bowel
  • pancreas

Tissues that can be donated include: 

  • the cornea (the transparent layer at the front of the eye)
  • bone
  • skin 
  • heart valves
  • tendons
  • cartilage

All donors have the choice of which organs and tissues they wish to donate. Read more about what organs can be donated.

How to donate

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 when they die. 

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:

  • by completing an online form 
  • by calling the NHS Donor Line on 0300 123 23 23

Read about how organ donation works for details about joining the NHS Organ Donor Register.

Even though there is a significant number of people on the register, most people will not die in circumstances that allow them to donate their organs. This makes it more important that as many people as possible join the register.

You should discuss your wishes with your family and medical staff so they are aware.

Checking for a match

When an organ becomes available for donation, it is checked to make sure it is healthy. The blood and tissue type of both donor and recipient are also checked to ensure they are compatible. The better the match, the greater the chance of a successful outcome.

People from the same ethnic group are more likely to be a close match. Those with rare tissue types may only be able to accept an organ from someone of the same ethnic origin. This is why it is important that people from all ethnic backgrounds register to donate their organs.

Types of donation

There are three different ways of donating an organ. These are known as:

  • donation after brain stem death
  • donation after cardiac death
  • live organ donation

These are described below.

Donation after brain stem death

Most organ donations are from brain stem dead donors. This means the donor has been confirmed brain stem dead following a severe brain injury. The circulation is supported by artificial ventilation until the donated organs have been removed.

Heartbeating donations have a high success rate because the organs are supported by oxygenated blood until they are removed.

Donation after cardiac death

Organs and tissue can also be donated after cardiac death. In the UK, almost all donors of this type are people who have died in intensive care from severe brain injuries, but who are not quite brain stem dead.

In these cases, the organs must be removed within a few minutes of the heart stopping to prevent them being damaged by a lack of oxygenated blood.

Live organ donation

A live organ donation usually involves one family member donating an organ to another family member. The relative is usually blood-related, most commonly a parent, although it could be a partner.

Following changes in the law, it is now possible to be an altruistic donor. Altruistic donors are unrelated to the patient but become donors as an act of personal generosity.

Kidney donations are often made from living donors, as a healthy person can lead a normal life with only one working kidney.

Read more information about living donation.

Page last reviewed: 19/10/2012

Next review due: 19/10/2014


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The 5 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

zlc1985 said on 08 November 2012

Speaking only from my experience, the views that doctors are keen to harvest organs by ignoring patient or family wishes is simply not true at least in the area I live in.

There is no way or chance that organs are taken without consent from family/friends and most definitely are never "taken" before family arrive.

Transplant coordinators/specialist nurses in organ donation do not "encourage" organ and tissue donation and most certainly do not, intentionally, do anything or suggest anything that may further distress families during the grieving process. They are there to facilitate the end of life wishes on behalf of patients and if this includes organ donation then this is only considered if relatives and friends want it to. If the wishes were not known then donation does not go ahead in my experience.

It is very rarely heard of that families feel distressed looking back on the experience if donation did occur, but much more common for feelings of regret if the decision was made to decline.

People are not pushed to donate anything, Healthcare professionals do not want public opinion of donation to be negative. More information needs to be put out that it is not a harvesting session but simply a gift of improved life that can be given after death if that is what is wanted. I would find it almost impossible to find a family that decided to donate say that they were pushed or encouraged or felt it was undignified. It is treated by staff as a gift that is wanted if given willingly.

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Yngern said on 15 July 2012

I am suspicious that doctors are keen to achieve more donors by ignoring patient and family wishes.

The donor register only accepts names of people who want to donate. You cannot express a preference not to donate. The only way to record these wishes are to leave them with everybody who could be asked if your organs can be used for donation.

Nurses, trained as transplant coordinators, 'encourage' donation. This adds distress to families and friends especially when the deceased wishes are not known. There should be a no box on every question for organ donation.

It should also be made clear that donations can be used for non-NHS patients.

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rubynolegs said on 06 April 2012

Removal of organs after death

unless you have said you do not want parts of your body used for research or donated to others after your death, whoever is legally responsible for the body can allow organs to be donated. This will usually be your personal representative. Before organs can be removed from the body, medical staff must be certain that brain death has taken place, and a death certificate must be issued.

I was shocked to see this at the end of the Bladder Cancer page on the Nhs Conditions and treatments. I was researching as 3 weeks have gone past and repeated urine tests, but wanted to know what should be done next, as if GP doesnt know i am sure i should be referred to someone who does???

Anyway, i firmly believe that the statement above is too ''wooly'' and sounds like you have no rights after your death. What happens if you die with no family, or before family arrive?? Do they take them anyway??

I will have a tattoo on my bottom and stomach as my family is fragmented and live apart in other towns for work reasons.

There is an Organ Donation page, but it carries the old rules. This page needs updating to clarify the situation.

It reads as if it is 'Legalised Body Part Snatching''
The public deserve to make their wishes known so that medical staff can access their wishes from a computer database rather that risk someone going against what their personal choice is.

I find this scarey as i have life threatening conditions and i certainly wouldnt like someone giving consent to strip out parts of my body. I have a valid reason for not wanting to donate, so am scared now as other members of my family dont mind either way.

Just how do i now go about letting on to them how ill i am and what my wishes are? The youngest is a teenager and the 20 year old is in the Army. He is my next of Kin but is on an overseas Posting.

Hope someone sees this who knows where to find the new guidelines in full.

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Mutton Smile said on 12 December 2011

If the database is confidential how can it be accessed by healthcare professionals? There are so many heathcare workers in the NHS it does not seem reasonable to describe the database as confidential.

Are there any safeguards to stop healthcare professionals accessing the database before someone is dead or is it routinely accessed if patients are expected to die?

How can a patient be confident their wishes are followed as the database can be updated by anyone at any time. No patient signatures or witnessed are required,

How can I stop someone registering or de-registering on my behalf?

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BrightonGal28 said on 06 July 2011

There is no information on how I register to opt out or otherwise refuse to have some organs used after my death. Is seems probable that my family or other person close to me may be able to over-ride my wishes and give consent for my organs to be taken. The process of opting in and opting out of organ donation should be explained including the current problems and challenges of the opt in only system provided.

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