Region aims to boost organ donations

Creation of in-hospital physician team will save lives

Region aims to boost organ donations
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Organ donations by the numbers

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2010

A program to dramatically boost the number of organ donations within the Winnipeg Health Region is expected to be up and running by the end of the year.

Dr. Peter Nickerson, Medical Director of Transplant Manitoba's Gift of Life Program, says the initiative will help ease the lineup for organ transplants, a list that averages about 200 people a year.

The program - the first of its kind in Canada - calls for the creation of an inhospital team of physicians to spearhead efforts to increase organ donations from deceased patients.

Currently, the deceased organ donation rate for Manitoba is about 11.5 per one million in population. But Nickerson says he hopes the new program will boost the rate to at least 20 per million, which would be in keeping with efforts in some European countries.

The life-saving potential is enormous. Nickerson estimates that as many as 13 Manitobans die every year waiting for an organ transplant. "That's preventable," Nickerson says. "We have the potential to prevent that."

Under current practice, health-care providers are able to refer potential organ donors to the Gift of Life Program and tissue donors to Tissue Bank Manitoba and Lions Eye Bank of Manitoba and Northwest Ontario.

But Nickerson says, for a variety of reasons, that doesn't always happen. Audits show that as many as 45 per cent of potential deceased donors may not be referred.

Part of the reason for the gap is that potential donors are rare and not all healthcare providers may recognize suitable candidates. Nickerson estimates that only one to two per cent of people who die in hospital would be considered for organ donation. "The likelihood of any one (healthcare provider) encountering someone who is a potential donor is about one to two a year," says Nickerson. "So part of it is the need for physicians to just be aware and up-to-speed as to who qualifies."

That's where the in-hospital team of physicians comes in. Along with providing medical care to patients who wish to have their organs donated and working with the families involved, the new organ donation specialist team will be responsible for:

  • Organ donor medical assessment and co-ordination.
  • Leadership for promotion across provincial emergency departments and intensive care units.
  • Education for health-care students and health-care professionals to assist them to recognize all organ donation opportunities while ensuring they approach relatives in a compassionate manner.

The program, initially announced by Health Minister Theresa Oswald in August, will cost about $360,000 and could involve as many as six physicians. It builds on previous organ donation-related investments by both the province and the Region totalling $4.6 million over the past five years.

Nickerson says there is good reason to believe the program, first developed in Spain, will be successful. He says Spain, Belgium and other countries have all boosted their deceased donation rates to at least 20 to 25 per million. "Italy used to be around 14 per million. They adopted the model, and they are now at 25 to 28 per million."

Arlene Wilgosh, President & CEO of the Winnipeg Health Region, says the new program is an example of how innovative thinking can help save lives.

"The leadership of the Gift of Life Program reviewed best practices for promoting and managing organ donations in nations with the highest organ donation rates in the world, then took what they learned and crafted a proposal that adopts and integrates what they found," she says. "Once in place, this new team of physicians will work with partners in the health system as well as patients, families and the public to help further increase organ donation and life-saving transplants."

Nickerson says the approach being taken in Winnipeg is in alignment with the national strategy for organ donation currently under development by Canadian Blood Services.

And, in addition to saving lives, he says the program will also save money. Patients awaiting kidney transplants, for example, need dialysis treatment to stay alive. Over the last five years, he says, Manitoba has increased the number of kidney transplants it has done. In doing so, he says Manitoba Health saved $6 million in dialysis costs.

"Investing in organ-donation specialists is not only a key strategy to achieving our life-saving goals, it also aligns with Manitoba's objective of ensuring sustainable, publicly funded health care by limiting the need for more costly dialysis therapy in Manitoba," Nickerson says.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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