Opt-in, Opt-out? A new system for organ donation in Scotland

Guest blog by Findlay Smith

Credit: Soeren Stache / DPA/Press Association Images

The Scottish Government is in the process of bringing forward legislation to introduce a ‘soft opt-out’ scheme for organ donation. Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell stated that the move will be one step of many in a “long term culture change” regarding organ donation.

A ‘soft opt-out’ scheme operates on the assumption that lack of objection on an individual’s part can be considered ‘deemed consent’.

This means that people in Scotland will have a choice to:

  • actively opt in – being placed on the organ donor register; or
  • do nothing – which will now be treated as ‘deemed consent’; or
  • actively opt out – being removed from the donor register

 Current situation in Scotland

According to the British Medical Association, as of 6 March 2017 there were 530 people in Scotland waiting for an organ transplant, with more than 1 in 10 dying before receiving a transplant.

Scotland currently operates an ‘opt-in’ system – to be a donor, you must actively register with the donor card scheme.

Although support for organ donation is high among the Scottish public, and there are indications of support for deemed consent, less than half of Scotland’s population are registered organ donors, with 45% registered.

Aimed at increasing the rates of organ and tissue donation, a public consultation was held by the Scottish Government between December 2016 and March 2017. The results indicated that 82% of respondents supported the principle of a ‘soft opt-out’ system.

Comparison with Wales

One example cited by the Scottish Government of a successful ‘soft opt-out’ policy is in Wales. In 2015, following the passing of the Human Transplantation (Wales) Act in 2013, Wales became the first country in the United Kingdom to introduce deemed consent for organ donation.

Due to these changes being implemented very recently, it is too early to accurately assess the impact of deemed consent in Wales, as it can take several years for an observable change in donation rates.

However, despite the absence of concrete figures, there are some promising signs. The British Medical Association reported in December 2016 that 39 organs had been transplanted in Wales as a direct result of the change in laws.

The Spanish model

Looking elsewhere in Europe, Spain has the highest rate of organ donation in the world, at a reported 40 donors per million people in 2015.

Whilst they have a nominally similar system to Wales, in practice they operate in a different manner. Although Spain introduced an ‘opt-out’ system in 1979, the system itself is considered ‘insignificant’ when looking to explain their world leading donation rate, as in the decade following the change in legislation there was no substantial increase in organ donation. This may be due in part to the ‘opt-out’ process rarely being applied in practice, as family members always have a final veto.

Crucially, in addition to the change in system, Spain has also drastically improved the infrastructure used to identify and recruit potential donors. In 1989 the National Transplant Organisation (ONT) was established, and Transplant Co-ordinators were placed inside every hospital.

The role of the Transplant Co-ordinator is to identify potential organ donors as early as possible. What makes the Spanish model innovative (it has since been emulated elsewhere in Europe), is the widening of the pool of potential donors. Rather than focusing on people in intensive care, potential donors are also identified in accident and emergency rooms and hospital wards.

The role of family members in this process is also key. The early identification of potential donors allows a strong relationship to be built with family members. As they have the final say, getting them on board early can make a significant difference. The Scottish Government seems to be aware of this, having conducted a fact-finding mission to Madrid in 2015, consulting ONT Director Rafael Matesanz.

Final thoughts

The examples highlighted suggest that if the introduction of ‘soft opt-out’ legislation is to be successful, it may not solely be the result of the legislation on its own. Improvements in infrastructure, organisation, and dialogue with families of potential donors will also be crucial. Transitioning towards this change in practice will require a change in culture in the NHS around organ donation.

These steps taken in Scotland, which follow the lead of Wales and draw from the Spanish model, are also now being considered in England. Assisted by a lengthy campaign from the Daily Mirror, Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson’s Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill was introduced to Parliament on 19 July 2017 and is due for debate on 23 February 2018.


Findlay Smith is currently in his final semester of study of the MPP Public Policy Programme at the University of Stirling. Findlay has recently completed a voluntary two week work experience placement with the Knowledge Exchange team in Glasgow.