Speech by Leo Varadkar, TD, Minister for Health at the Launch of Organ Donor Awareness Week Mansion House, Dublin

Ladies and gentleman, I am delighted to be here to launch Organ Donor Awareness Week 2015.

As you know, Organ Donor Awareness Week is an important annual event to promote the life-saving role of organ donation.  I welcome this opportunity to support that effort, and hopefully increase the possibilities for life saving, and life enhancing, transplants for more people.

On behalf of the Government, I want to thank Mark Murphy and his colleagues in the Irish Kidney Association for allowing me to be associated with their event.  I also want to thank Mary Kennedy for giving so much to the organ awareness effort over the past two years through her work as ambassador for organ donation.

We all know people who have had an organ transplant. And we all know how it can make an enormous difference to a patient, and to the lives of those around them. We all have a duty to do everything we can to ensure that as many people as possible benefit from this gift of life.

Although Ireland has a strong record on organ donation, I would like to see our rates rise to levels seen in other European countries.  In 2014 the number of deceased donors was lower than in 2013, but we performed well in terms of maximising the number of organs that were transplanted. A total of 251 transplants were performed thanks to the generosity of 63 deceased donors and 40 living donors.  Though lower than in 2013, it was the third highest ever.

In 2014 we achieved:

·    a record number of 40 living kidney transplants at Beaumont Hospital;
·    a record number of 18 heart transplants at the Mater Hospital; and
·    31 lung transplants, also at the Mater, just one short of the 2013 figure which was far ahead of previous years.

Today, I want to set out my thoughts on how we could maximise organ donation and transplantation rates.  I want to see donation and transplantation rates improving in 2015. I hope the target of 300 can be achieved, more than any previous year.

I know that the potential for transplantation depends on suitable donors becoming available, but I think there are a number of areas on which we could concentrate to maximise the potential supply of organs, to match them up effectively with potential recipients, and to carry out successful transplantations.

I think we need five actions:

1.    We need to ensure that the most appropriate infrastructure is in place to support organ donation and transplantation;

2.    We need appropriate capacity and resources in our transplant hospitals to facilitate increased transplantation;

3.    We need to ensure that all those who die in circumstances where organ donation is a possibility are recognised   and that families are made aware of the possibility of giving     the gift of life to others;

4.    We need to build on the progress being made on the living kidney donor programme; and

5.    We must strive to reach the point where organ donation will become the norm when opportunities arise.

Additional funding of almost €3m has been provided to the HSE’s Organ Donation and Transplant Office to develop the most appropriate infrastructure for organ donation and transplantation.  The extra investment includes provision for 19 whole-time-equivalent staff dedicated to organ donation and transplantation across the country.

The appointments will include 6 half-time Consultant Intensive Care Physicians and 6 Organ Donation Nurse Managers who will play important roles in each of the hospital groups.  They will work:

·     to foster a strong culture of organ donation;
·     to optimise conversion rates; and
·     to champion educational strategies and training programmes to promote organ donation to healthcare professionals across each hospital group.

These key donation personnel will have a particular focus on protecting the interests of donating families throughout the process.

A further critical element is the on-going establishment of a reconfigured National Organ Procurement Service.
I want to extend my thanks to Phyllis Cunningham, Aileen Counihan, Andrea Fitzmaurice and their colleagues in Beaumont Hospital who have worked so hard to develop and manage the Organ Procurement Service up to this point.

The new procurement service is located in Organ Donation & Transplant Ireland and will be fully operational next month. I am pleased that five Organ Procurement Coordinators, led by Regina Reynolds, have already been appointed to establish and run the new service.

These Organ Procurement Coordinators will be on-call on a 24/7 basis. Their responsibilities will include:

·    travelling to any hospital where a potential organ donor is identified;
·    obtaining consent from bereaved families;
·    obtaining comprehensive donor medical and social history;
·    supporting the donor family throughout the donation process;
·    organising retrieval teams; and
·    co-ordinating theatre time.

I know they will play a key role in driving organ donation and transplantation in the future.

We also need to ensure that every link in the chain – from donation to transplantation – adheres to the highest standards of quality and safety.  This means ensuring that those who donate organs, as well as those who receive organs, can be fully confident that the system meets the very best standards of international practice.

A dedicated Quality Manager has been appointed in each of the three transplant hospitals – the Mater, Beaumont and St Vincent’s – and also in the National Organ Procurement Service.  This team will establish relevant standard operating procedures and co-ordinate the development of quality systems for transplant services.   Their work will ensure that the risks associated with organ procurement and transplantation are minimised and the benefits maximised.

Another important factor in meeting our organ donation and transplantation targets is to ensure that our transplant hospitals have sufficient resources and capacity.

There has been some coverage recently about the transplant programme at Beaumont Hospital and the challenges the hospital faces in recruiting renal transplant surgeons to fill vacancies.  Highly trained transplant surgeons can be difficult to recruit. There are none on the live register, needless to say. They have to be actively recruited from elsewhere. Beaumont has advertised these specialised posts both nationally and internationally.  And every effort will be made to successfully conclude the process.

Meanwhile, the HSE and my Department are working with Beaumont Hospital to put short and medium term measures in place to alleviate current pressures, and to address the challenges facing the transplant programme at the hospital.

Also, the living kidney donor programme has real potential to increase transplant rates.  I launched a new scheme to reimburse the expenses of living donors last November. The scheme aims to acknowledge the importance of living kidney donors, and minimise any financial losses they incur. This policy reimburses accommodation and travel expenses incurred by living kidney donors up to a maximum of €6,000.  Any loss of earnings incurred by the donor for up to 12 weeks after the donation takes place will also be eligible for reimbursement, also up to a maximum of €6,000.

We need to change our cultural attitude to organ donation, both at an individual level and an organisational level.  My Department is developing proposals for an opt-out system of consent for organ donation, which should help to make a difference, and I anticipate the Heads of the Human Tissue Bill to be published before the end of the year.

I foresee a time where organ donation becomes the norm when people pass away in circumstances in which donation is a possibility. The appointment of key donation personnel in each of the six hospital groups will be a very important step towards achieving this goal.

We also need to encourage everyone to share their views on organ donation with their loved ones. To have that ‘what if’ conversation around the dinner table. If these issues are discussed in advance by individuals, and made clear to their next-of-kin, it can help to ensure that their wishes for organ donation are realised. Being aware of a loved one’s views can provide solace and peace of mind to those left behind, who have the consolation of knowing that they are implementing the wishes of the deceased.

I want to extend my thanks to Prof Jim Egan and his colleagues in Organ Donation & Transplant Ireland for playing a key role in ensuring that the reconfigured services operate effectively, and in building on the successes to date.  I also acknowledge the hard work and dedication to their patients of each member of the organ procurement and transplant teams.

On behalf of the Government and society at large, I want to thank all the families who have facilitated the donation of organs of their loved ones, often to the benefit of several recipients.  I also want to acknowledge the kind, brave people who become living kidney donors.  Your generosity is an example to us all.

In conclusion, I want to repeat my commitment to enhance organ donation and transplantation rates, in order to benefit patients and their families. I hope the events of the coming week will raise awareness and ultimately lead to good health for those who can benefit.
Thank you.