How to boost organ donations in Hong Kong

October 26, 2015 14:54
A 19-year-old girl (inset) suffering from severe lung problems passed away before she could find a suitable fit for lung transplantation. Photo: Apple Daily, internet

The sad news about a 19-year-old girl with severe lung problems who passed away before she could find a suitable fit for lung transplantation has once again raised public concern about the low organ donation rate in Hong Kong.

Until the end of 2014, there were 2,578 chronic disease patients on the waiting list for organ transplants in Hong Kong, according to data from the Hospital Authority.

Every year, there are 80 to 120 deceased donors in our city whose organs are fit for transplants, but only 45 to 50 successful transplants take place on average. The low figure is mainly due to the objection of their family members.

Hong Kong has long adopted the “opt-in” system, which means citizens have to sign up for organ donation on the “Centralized Organ Donation Register” in order to become a donor, or else their organs won’t be used for transplants after their death.

Even though a survey conducted by the Health Department indicates that 65 percent of Hong Kong people are willing to donate their organs after their death, when it comes to the actual number of donations, Hong Kong lags far behind most developed countries in the West.

Amid the severe shortage of organ donors, some countries have adopted new approaches to boost organ donation rates.

These include the “opt-out” system, under which the organs of any deceased person will be used for transplantation unless they have refused explicitly to donate their organs beforehand.

Earlier this year Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man said the government was giving serious thought to adopting the “opt-out” system, but his remarks drew a lot of flak.

Some even countered that making organ donation mandatory would be an act against human rights, suggesting that our society is far from ready for the implementation of the “opt-out” system.

I believe the consistently low organ donation rate in our city can be attributed partly, if not entirely, to the deep-rooted belief in the Chinese tradition that a dead person’s body must be kept intact so that they can continue to live in the afterlife.

This belief is deeply held especially among the elderly. Therefore, any attempt to press ahead with the “opt-out” system before our society has reached a consensus on this issue is bound to draw considerable public backlash, and the policy itself is likely to backfire.

Besides, the “opt-out” system doesn’t necessarily guarantee a remarkable increase in the organ donation rate, as people can still choose to opt out before they die, which is exactly what is happening in Singapore.

Therefore, in my opinion, the only way to boost our organ donation rate is to educate the general public through different channels about the importance of organ donation and how it can save tens of thousands of lives.

Having said that, I urge the government to step up its efforts in promoting organ donation in our society, particularly among the older generation. The Hospital Authority can also reach out to the elderly and encourage them to sign up for organ donation.

On the other hand, there are currently only nine organ donation officers coordinating a total of 42 hospitals in Hong Kong, which is highly insufficient.

Therefore, the administration should also allocate more resources and manpower for them in order to alleviate their heavy workload.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 23.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

Teen dies after plea for lung donation falls on deaf ears (Oct. 8, 2015)

Father of 19-year-old patient hoping for a miracle (Sept. 29, 2015)

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Legislative councilor and head of nursing and health studies in the Open University of Hong Kong