Heart Transplant

Australia's organ donation rates remain low. Photo: Thinkstock

Australia will continue to lag behind many other countries in organ and tissue donation rates unless the families of potential donors are given more support, an expert has warned.

Statistics released this week show that in 2012 the organs of 354 Australians were donated 1,052 people in Australia.

Donations from 12 ACT donors assisted 31 people.

But Holly Northam, a member of the advocacy group ShareLife who works at the University of Canberra's health faculty, said donation rates in Australia were much lower than in comparable countries.

“If you happen to be the person there when a child is dying waiting for a transplant, you know that there is absolutely no likelihood that that child will get a transplant because there haven't been any child donors for how many years," Ms Northam said.

Ms Northam coordinated organ and tissue donations in the ACT for seven years and is conducting a research project with families who have had to decide whether or not to allow a loved-one's organs to be donated.

She said $151 million over four years and $40 million in recurrent funding from the federal government had only led to modest increases in donation rates.

“It's scarcely earth-shattering and we're still ranked 22 to 23rd in the world which really isn't a significant increase from where we were before the reforms started," she said.

Ms Northam said about 90 per cent of Australians liked the idea of organ donation but only about 55 per cent of potential donations went ahead.

Families should not be blamed for failing to allow a donation from a deceased relative to go ahead, Ms Northam said.

“We often hear families blamed: 'So and so overturned their loved one's wishes'," she said.

“It should probably be looked at the other way: what are we doing in the hospitals to make it hard for families to agree?

“It's not an easy decision to make at the time you make it – and they're often not receiving the information required."

Ms Northam said more staff needed to be trained in how to approach and assist families who needed to make decisions about donation.

“From a best-practice perspective we look to Spain because in Spain they have specialist staff who are in the hospitals and they normalise it because they approach every family at every death and ask them about organ and tissue donation, so it becomes something that's an everyday activity.

"But in Australia it's something that's very rare and very unexpected. Staff are very unfamiliar with it and the community don't know what to expect."

Ms Northam did not believe Australia needed to be moved from an “opt-in" to “opt-out" approach to organ donation.

“It's pretty irrelevant. It's about approaching a family, asking them nicely, and caring for them once they've made a decision," she said.