Students call for opt-out organ-donation system in B.C.

High-school students in Nanaimo have created a petition asking the provincial government to move to an opt-out organ-donation system.

B.C. currently requires people to register if they want to be organ donors — the same protocol as in every other province except Nova Scotia, which in April unanimously passed an act enabling an opt-out system.

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The legislation, expected to come into effect in 12 to 18 months, makes everyone in Nova Scotia over the age of 19 — except those without the capacity for decision-making — a potential organ donor. Those who don’t want to donate must take steps to opt out.

The Nanaimo students started the petition as part of a project for Aaron Bruce’s marketing class at Nanaimo District Secondary School. Bruce said he wanted to show marketing in a different light, and bring awareness to an issue he cares about.

He said marketing isn’t just about pushing a product — it can also be about pushing for social change. The class of 25 created a website, social-media posts and posters to put up around the school. They also contacted leadership councils at other schools.

The class started working on the petition in early April, coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in Saskatchewan, in which 16 young hockey players were killed. One of those who died was 21-year-old Logan Boulet, whose decision to register as an organ donor saved six lives and inspired thousands more to register.

Bruce said most of his students took to the idea of the petition, especially when they heard from a young mother who had received a lung transplant. “That’s when students were probably most engaged with it.”

Andrea Gollmer, who lives in Ladysmith, told students about her transplant surgery and the five months she spent recovering in Vancouver. Gollmer said she supports an opt-out system, because registering to be an organ donor is not on everyone’s radar.

“I think this would definitely increase the numbers,” she said. “It’s creating a discussion and bringing awareness to it. That’s the first step in anything.”

Daniel Hall, a Grade 11 student in the class, said it was inspiring to hear Gollmer’s story and understand the direct impact of organ donation.

Bruce said he hopes to continue the petition, which has more than 300 signatures, with his marketing class next year and gather enough signatures to bring it to the local MLA. Daniel also wants to continue working on the petition. “We’re really hoping to get this as big as possible and bring it to government officials,” he said.

Timothy Caulfield, a professor of law and public health at the University of Alberta, said while an opt-out system removes what appears to be the biggest barrier — getting people to consent — it’s just one piece of a “long chain that needs to work well for rates to improve.” Caulfield has argued that presumed consent does not necessarily mean higher donation rates, pointing to Luxembourg, Sweden and Bulgaria, which have donation rates lower than Canada’s, though they have opt-out systems.

He also argues that in countries with opt-out laws, doctors often give families the chance to decide not to let their loved one’s organs be used for transplants.

While he favours an opt-out system, Caulfield said it’s only one tool of many to increase donation rates.

Ed Ferre, provincial operations director at B.C. Transplant, agrees there’s more to improving donation rates than presumed consent. Ferre said the most important thing is to identify potential organ donors by educating the public and health-care professionals working in end-of-life care, including encouraging health-care workers to talk with families about organ donation at a difficult time.

Ferre said the province has made many changes over the last couple of years that have given B.C. the best organ-donation rates in the country — such as requiring medical professionals to call all deaths or impending deaths into a B.C. Transplant referral line, and the introduction of “physician champions” who work in critical care and educate their colleagues about organ donation. About 1.35 million British Columbians are registered as donors, and in 2018, 502 lives were saved in B.C. through organ donation, according to B.C. Transplant.

Ferre said the province is not currently looking at following Nova Scotia’s lead, but won’t rule it out in future if there is public support. “We’re all looking forward to what happens in Nova Scotia.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

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