N.B. should adopt presumed consent for organ donation

Today is Green Shirt Day in Canada, the day after the anniversary of the tragic 2018 Humboldt Broncos bus crash where 16 people lost their lives and 13 were severely injured.

On April 7, 2018, the day after the crash, Broncos’ defenceman Logan Boulet succumbed to his injuries. His parents, respecting their sons wishes, offered to donate his organs so that six people could live on.

Logan Boulet’s generosity not only saved the lives of six people, but it inspired awareness of organ and tissue donation across Canada. Almost 150,000 Canadians registered to become organ donors in the weeks following the tragedy, the largest number of Canadians registering as organ donors due to one event or person to date.

Organ and tissue donation and transplants save lives. A total of 3,014 organ transplant procedures were performed in Canada in 2019, an increase of 42 per cent since 2010, according to the Canadian Organ Replacement Register.

While this is encouraging, it is not enough. The number of organ transplants needed vastly outnumbers the donations received each year. There are approximately 4,400 Canadians waiting for a life-saving organ transplant, including hundreds in New Brunswick. Sadly, about 250 Canadians die each year waiting for an organ transplant.

In January 2021, Nova Scotia became the first province to pass the Human Organ and Tissue Donation Act, making every individual a potential organ donor unless they choose to opt out.

According to the Government of Nova Scotia website, the law was changed to “help Nova Scotians waiting for a transplant get one sooner by increasing organ and tissue donation. It’s a change that will change lives.”

After the planned change was announced in April 2019 and organ donation became a topic of broader discussion, Nova Scotia began recording higher donation rates as awareness increased.

“The law came into effect in January, but we had been working on changing the system in preparation for the law for the past 18 months,” Dr. Stephen Beed, medical adviser for the Nova Scotia organ and tissue donation program, told the Globe & Mail in March 2021. “We’ve ended up having by far the most successful donation year.”

The New Brunswick Medical Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of New Brunswick are calling on the Government of New Brunswick to follow Nova Scotia in enacting presumed consent legislation for organ donation.

Many nations around the world have similar policies for their citizens, and it has great impact on donation rates. According to the World Health Organization, countries with opt-out laws have donation rates 25 to 30 per cent higher than those in countries who require explicit consent.

Spain adopted an opt-out system more than 40 years ago and in 2019 had 49 deceased organ donors per million population, more than double Canada’s rate of 21.8 donors per million population.

Currently in New Brunswick, we must opt in to become organ donors. Earlier this year, Canadian Blood Services (CBS) asked provinces to report the number of citizens who have registered any decision about organ donation. From jurisdictions that were able to report on this data, CBS calculated that approximately 32 per cent of Canadians have registered a decision to donate. We can do better.

A single donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation, provide tissue for up to 75 patients, and restore sight for two people. It is so important that we all become organ donors. Adopting a presumed consent, or “deemed consent” as it is known in Nova Scotia, would help bolster organ and tissue donation numbers in our province, potentially saving the lives of many New Brunswickers.

When Nova Scotia announced its intentions to adopt presumed consent, the New Brunswick government acknowledged that the concept was worth considering.

Our organizations urge all Members of the Legislative Assembly to pursue presumed consent legislation in New Brunswick. We encourage members of the public to voice their support for this important change as well.

In the meantime, you can register as an organ donor in New Brunswick by doing the following: call Service New Brunswick at 1-888-762-8600 and select “2” to request a change to your Medicare Card. Your new Medicare card will clearly display a “D” to indicate you are a donor. You may change or withdraw your consent to donate at any time.

Secondly, please discuss your decision to be an organ donor with your family or loved ones. When you register to be an organ donor, this reflects your intent to donate but is not consent. In most cases, families honour their loved ones’ decision to donate. But the legal next-of-kin have the final decision. It is critically important that those closest to you know your wishes.

Today our organizations are recognizing Green Shirt Day, highlighting the importance of organ and tissue donation. We encourage all New Brunswickers to wear green and join in this important conversation.

Dr. Jeff Steeves is President of the New Brunswick Medical Society. Kurtis Sisk is Chief Executive Officer of the Heart & Stroke Foundation of New Brunswick.