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Pilot donor scheme with potential to save lives

There are two million people on the NHS Organ Donor Register in Scotland – that's more than 40% of the adult population and a higher rate than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

There are even more Scots who say they would be willing to donate their organs but have not yet joined the register. There is goodwill on the subject of donation after death – millions of people who want to help society and possibly save a life, or lives, after their death.

And yet it is still not enough. Despite the progress made in increasing the number of registered donors in recent years, Scotland still has among the lowest donation rates in Europe and every day in this country people die who could have been saved, had a transplant organ been available. Over the years various ideas have been suggested to improve this situation, with some support gathering for the idea of an opt-out system in which every citizen would be assumed to consent to donation. There is much to commend this idea, although it would have to retain a veto for grieving families if the idea is to attract public support.

In the meantime, any idea which nudges the public closer to widespread acceptance of organ donation is to be welcomed. Those who apply for a driving licence, for example, are now required to give or withhold consent for organ donation which is likely to get people thinking about donation without exerting undue pressure on them, and a new pilot scheme at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, announced yesterday, has similar merits.

In the trial, which will run for a year, transplant teams will, for the first time, be able to use the organs of patients who have died of a heart attack in A&E rather than intensive care, where the teams have been traditionally best geared up for donation.

It is another step forward that is likely to take the public with it. First, it only applies to those who have expressed a wish during their lifetime to be a donor by joining the NHS register. Secondly, the consent of the donor's families will still be sought, which is as it should be (the vast majority of families do go along with their loved one's wishes).

The beneficial effects of the pilot should also be felt promptly. Donations from one patient can save up to seven people. The longer-term effects of the year-long pilot are even more significant. It is estimated there will be 10 new donors under the pilot which means that, with about 80 donors a year in total in Scotland, the pilot could vastly increase the number of donors and save many more lives.

The trial could also achieve something else important by nudging more of us towards signing up to the organ donation register and giving life after our deaths.

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