While thousands of Canadians wait for transplants that could alter or save their lives, many potentially willing organ donors are never identified or don't make it through the complex donation process, says a report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information released Thursday.
"We know that each year, more than 500 Canadians who die in hospital donate their organs," said Kathleen Morris, director of health system analysis at CIHI. "What we found, using very conservative estimates, is that only about one-third of people who are clinically eligible to donate an organ actually become a donor."
The report said there are untapped donors among deceased patients over age 60 and among those with irreversible brain damage who are declared dead after their heart stops – called donation after cardiocirculatory death, or DCD.
"Organ donation is a complex process, which involves identifying potential donors, getting consent from the families and procuring the organs around the time of death," said Morris. "While it may not be possible to convert every potential donor, the data suggest that Canada can go further in improving the health or saving the lives of Canadians waiting for organ transplantation."
CIHI said there are more than 4,600 Canadians on waiting lists for a kidney, liver or other organ transplant. According to the latest statistics available, there were 2,124 organ transplants in 2012, but 256 people died waiting for a donor.
The report found that Quebec had the highest rate of organ donors from medically eligible deceased patients, at 21 per cent, while the Prairie provinces had the country's lowest rate at 10 to 11 per cent.
Each deceased donor provides an average of three solid organs to recipients, which suggests that 3,577 organs could have been available for transplant if donors were better identified and managed through the appropriate steps of organ donation, CIHI said. Deceased patients can also provide donor tissues like corneas, skin and bone.
Despite a public perception to the contrary, there is no age limit for someone to become a donor, as long as the person's organs are healthy. In Ontario, for instance, the oldest donor to date was 93.
The CIHI report showed there is great variation in organ donation rates among provinces, but also among hospitals. Teaching hospitals are more likely to identify and secure donors than are smaller community hospitals.