If you discuss one thing with your family this Christmas…
Would you believe it if I told you more Australians know what their loved one’s favourite tipple is, or the song that tops their personal playlist, or what their go-to comfort food is - than whether or not, if the end was nigh, they would choose to be an organ donor?
It sounds slightly flippant when you put it like that but that’s the finding from a new national survey of 3800 Australians conducted on behalf of the Australian Organ and Tissue Donation and Transplantation Authority.
The survey also revealed most Australians believe ending a relationship, talking to an elderly family member about aged care and explaining the birds and the bees to their kids are harder conversations to have with their loved ones than organ and tissue donation.
The national results showed when it comes to having the hardest conversation - breaking up (42%), discussing sex with the kids (23%), talking about putting a loved one in aged care (20%), discussing your will (9%) and telling family members you lost your job (4%) were all ahead of discussing organ and tissue donation (2%).
So why then do only one in two Australians know if their next of kin wants to be a donor?
We know in Australia there’s an issue. With our national average around 12 donors per million, we are dragging the chain in terms of organ and tissue donation rates and the Authority is on a mission to change that.
Families need to know each other’s wishes about organ and tissue donation because, even if you are registered as a donor, your next of kin is still asked to give consent for donation to take place. I can’t think of a more appropriate time than the holiday season to remind people to sit down and have a very clear and memorable discussion about their personal wishes in regard to organ and tissue donation and, just as importantly, to listen carefully to the wishes of their nearest and dearest.
Now it’s one thing to support organ and tissue donation in principle. Good deed, sounds sensible, all that. But it’s quite another when it is actually someone you love lying in that hospital bed. We know that families are more likely to give consent when they know the wishes of their loved one but at the moment, when families are approached only 56% consent to donation and we are determined to urgently improve this.
As an intensive care doctor who becomes part of this discussion with Australian families, I can assure you empowering your family with the knowledge of your wishes is one of the greatest gifts you will ever give.
Sadly, it’s a fair bet that over this festive season you and your family will watch the television news and see reports of road tragedies or other terrible losses. It makes you want to count your blessings. I’d also like to think it makes you want to let your loved ones know what they should do if it is by some cruel twist of fate, your family put in that position of grief and loss.
I will tell you from being at the coal face, the families who have taken the time to clearly communicate to each other their wishes in regard to organ donation do get some comfort from that knowledge in what is a truly terrible time.
It is a decision they will replay over and over in their heads and they have to feel like they did their best for that person. As health professionals it is our duty of care to the families to make sure that decision is made carefully.
People make New Year’s resolutions about all sorts of trivial things, and if they are anything like me, that resolve dissolves quickly once the holiday buzz wears off. But this is the right time and place, as we move into 2010, to resolve to get this all-important knowledge for yourself and to then empower your loved ones in the same manner.
We can’t ignore what a life changing act of human kindness this is. So far this year across the nation, 225 generous organ donors have given a new chance at life to 732 Australians. Currently we have more than 1700 Australians on official transplant waiting lists hoping for this most precious of gifts.
What was really interesting to me was that more than half (56%) of the Australians surveyed thought there were more than 1000 donors each year and 84% put the number at more than 500. It is true to some degree that not everyone will be in a clinical position to be a candidate for organ donation but it’s also a fact most people who die can be tissue donors.
More people than you’d imagine can be organ donors despite their age, or if they’ve lived overseas, or any number of other myths that make people think this is not an issue they are affected by.
These myths also contribute to clouding the issue for families facing this momentous decision in hospitals.
The research found some Australians (22%) believe the myth that doctors will not work as hard to save their lives if they were an organ donor or that they mistakenly believe a person’s body will be disfigured and mutilated (19%). This is not the case, donation surgery is always undertaken with dignity and respect.
That’s why the Australian Organ and Tissue Authority last month launched its DonateLife community education and awareness program, which aims to empower Australians to discover the facts about organ and tissue donation, become informed and decide about becoming a donor and discuss their wishes with their family.
We’re seeking to improve consent on two fronts – firstly, by asking families to learn their loved ones wishes and secondly, through developing organ donation expertise in hospitals. It is about making sure we have highly trained doctors and nurses working to ensure donation is a routine part of end-of-life patient care and that every potential donor is identified and their families asked about donation in a sensitive and respectful way.
The best gift we can give our health professionals, who on any given day may have to ask this most difficult of questions, is the knowledge that every Australian family has taken the time during happier circumstances to know in their hearts the answer.
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