Decade Old Error Creates Organ Donor Problems in UK

In the UK, the National Health Service's (NHS) Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) Special Health Authority is tasked "with the provision of a reliable, efficient supply of blood, organs and associated services to the NHS."

Those in the UK wishing to donate their organs or tissue after dying can do so, according to the NHSBT web site, by "telling a relative or close friend, by carrying an organ donor card or recording your wishes on the NHS Organ Donor Register. Putting your name on the NHS Organ Donor Register makes it easier for the NHS to establish your wishes and for those closest to you in life to follow them."

Over the weekend, a flurry of news stories such as this one in the London Telegraph indicated that the donation wishes of some 800,000 people contained errors, with at least twenty cases occurring where organs were taken without consent.

Apparently last year, the NHSBT wrote to thank the new donors who had joined the Organ Donor Registry. In the letter, the NHSBT listed what organs/tissue the donors had agreed to donate. However, a number of the new donors immediately wrote back stating that their donation details were incorrect.

This sparked an investigation in which the NHSBT discovered that some 800,000 donor records contained flaws. The NHSBT was able to correct the errors in some 400,000 donor records before the word of the problem leaked out over the weekend in the London newspapers. No donation actions will be taken in regard to the remaining 400,000 organ donors until their records are corrected, the NHSBT now says.

According to the NHSBT web site press release, the error "only affects those who have registered via the driving licence application form."

There are over 17 million people who have joined the NHS Organ Donor Register the NHSBT indicates on its web site.

The donor card error goes back a decade, the Telegraph story indicates.

In 1999, the Telegraph story says, "data held by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which includes a request for consent in applications for a driving licence, was transferred to the organ registry." For as of yet undisclosed reasons, the detailed information regarding these specific donor requests were deleted and no one noticed.

[The newspaper stories don't say it, but I assume the original Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency records were kept. Otherwise, I don't see how 400,000 out of the 800,000 incorrect donor requests could be corrected by the NHSBT.]

UK Health Secretary Andy Burnham expressed his deep "regrets" over the distressed caused, and asked Professor Sir Gordon Duff of Sheffield University to carry out a review of the situation to prevent it from happening again, according to this London Times story.

A review is probably warranted from a political standpoint, but I seriously doubt it is going to uncover anything of major technical/management value. Is the UK government planning to transfer the organ donor information to another government agency any time soon, and beyond recommending taking the common sense precaution to validate the integrity of donor data after a transfer (which obviously wasn't done) and/or periodically, what more is there?

Maybe Professor Duff will look into the reason why the NHSBT tried to keep the problem quiet for so long. That would be a better use of his time, I think, but probably beyond his remit.

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