Health

Organ donors 'should be offered funeral expenses'

  • 11 October 2011
  • From the section Health
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Patients who donate their organs should have their funeral expenses paid for by the NHS, according to a leading ethics body.

The Nuffield Council of Bioethics report said the move could lead to more people donating their organs.

However, it ruled out directly paying donors for their organs.

The government will consider the recommendations but said donating should be "free from any financial consideration".

Keith Rigg, a transplant surgeon from Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust and one of the report's authors, said: "There is a well-known shortage of organs."

One recommendation to boost the number of donors was to pay the funeral costs of people who join the Organ Donor Register and whose organs are transplanted.

Prof Marilyn Strathern, who chaired the inquiry, said: "The possibility of sparing relatives the financial burden of a funeral might encourage more people to register as donors."

Will it work?

However, Mr Rigg admitted that there was "no evidence for how effective" such a proposal would be and the report recommends a pilot scheme.

Mr Rigg said the very cheapest funerals cost about £1,500 and that any NHS payment "would be an offer of a reasonable amount".

Dr Kevin Gunning, a consultant at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge and a member of the Intensive Care Society, said: "It's not going to change a great deal about the way people think about organ donation.

"I'm not sure if I was signing up to the Organ Donor Register as a 25-year-old, the fact that my funeral expenses were going to be paid would make a great deal of difference to whether I signed up or not.

The authors said this was not a slippery slope towards payment for organs, which is illegal in the UK, as the donor would not benefit financially themselves.

Comparisons were drawn with medical schools paying funeral costs when a body was donated for research or training.

Prof Strathern said: "Altruism should continue to play a fundamental role."

The report also said more needed to be done to reduce demand for organs through measures to reduce obesity, diabetes and liver disease.

However, the report did not recommend an opt-out, or presumed consent, system in which everyone would be considered an organ donor, unless they explicitly objected.

Such a scheme is being considered by the Welsh government.

However, the report said there was "uncertainty" about whether this would improve matters. It added that further studies should take place before the rest of the UK followed suit.

The British Medical Association said paying funeral costs was "an interesting idea," but "still believes that one of the best ways to increase organ donation is to move to an opt-out system with safeguards."

Egg and sperm

The report's authors said half of fertility clinics had a shortage of sperm and almost all had a shortage of eggs.

It suggested lifting the £250 cap on expenses which currently leaves "some donors out of pocket".

The regulatory body, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, is due to announce the results of its public consultation next week.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "Signing up to the Organ Donation Register is a selfless act that can save the lives of others.

"It is an independent personal decision that should be free from any financial consideration.

"We will consider the recommendations of the report with NHS Blood and Transplant and the Human Tissue Authority."

NHS Blood and Transplant said it welcomed debate over the matter.

It said in a statement: "This interest will help to increase awareness of the need for people to sign up to the Organ Donor register and discuss their wishes with their friends and families.

"Currently in the UK, organ donation operates according to the fundamental principle that organs/tissues are donated altruistically and it is illegal to receive a payment for supplying an organ.

"The legal, ethical and practical issues raised by these recommendations, will need careful consideration and evaluation."

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