Frequently Asked Questions
Read our frequently asked questions for answers to your questions about organ and tissue donation for transplantation.
What is organ and tissue donation?
Organ donation is a life-saving and life-transforming medical process. Organ and tissue donation involves removing organs and tissues from someone who has died (a donor) and transplanting them into someone who, in many cases, is very ill or dying (a recipient).
Why do people need transplants?
People who need an organ transplant are usually very ill or dying because an organ is failing. They range from babies and children through to older people.
People in end-stage liver, heart or lung failure will die unless they have a transplant, while people with kidney failure can usually be placed on dialysis until a kidney becomes available. This requires them to have dialysis up to eight hours a day, several days a week.
People who need a tissue transplant can also be of any age. In some cases, tissue can save lives. More often, it greatly improves the recipient’s life.
How long do people wait for transplants?
Around 1600 people are officially waiting for an organ transplant at any time in Australia.
Waiting times are usually between six months and four years but there are cases where the recipient must wait even longer. There is a strong awareness that in most cases the longer the delay in receiving a transplant, the greater the risk of deteriorating health.
Who can become an organ and tissue donor?
Almost everyone can help others through organ and tissue donation. The governing factors are where and how a donor dies and the condition of their organs and tissues.
While your age and medical history will be considered, you shouldn’t assume you’re too young, too old or not healthy enough to become a donor. All major religions support organ and tissue donation for transplantation. Older Australians with chronic health conditions can be donors. Only a few medical conditions, such as transmissible diseases like HIV, may prevent someone being a donor. A person may not be able to donate for 12 months after having a tattoo.
Less than 1% of all people who die in hospital can be considered for organ donation because they must die in specific circumstances. Because the opportunity to become an organ donor is rare, it is important that we all make a decision about what we want and that we discuss it with our family.
What organs and tissues can be donated?
Organs that can be transplanted include the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, intestine and pancreas.
Tissues that can be transplanted include heart valves and other heart tissue, bone, tendons, ligaments, skin and parts of the eye such as the cornea and sclera.
How does the donation process work?
When a person dies in a situation where they can become an organ and/or tissue donor, the possibility of donation is raised with the family.
The Australian Organ Donor Register is checked to find out whether the deceased person had registered their decision regarding organ and tissue donation. A donation specialist will meet with the family to talk about donation.
The family of a potential donor is given time to discuss and reach a decision on whether donation will occur. If donation is agreed, documentation will confirm the donation and which organs and tissues are being donated.
During and after the process, the donor’s family are supported by DonateLife organ and tissue donation specialist staff.
All donations and transplants are performed by specialist medical teams in the Australian public health system.
Can the family change their minds about their donation decision?
Yes. The family can change their minds about donation at any point up to the time when the patient is taken to the operating room.
How are organs and tissues removed?
The removal of organs and tissues is no different to any other surgical procedure.
The donor’s body is always treated with dignity and respect. The donation of organs and tissues doesn’t alter the physical appearance of the donor, nor does it affect funeral arrangements.
When can organ and tissue donation occur?
A person may be able to donate organs when they have been declared brain dead and are being artificially ventilated in hospital. Brain death is when blood circulation to the brain ceases, the brain stops functioning and dies with no possibility of recovery. A series of tests carried out by two independent and appropriately-qualified senior doctors establishes that brain death has occurred.
People can be confused about the difference between brain death and being in a coma.
A patient in a coma is unconscious because their brain is injured in some way; however their brain continues to function and may heal. With brain death, there is no possibility whatsoever that the brain will recover. Medical tests clearly distinguish between brain death and being in a coma.
Organ donation may also be possible after a person’s heart has stopped beating, referred to as ‘cardiac death’, however this is less common.
Only one to two per cent of people who die in hospital will be eligible to donate their organs. Therefore it is very important to identify all potential donors and support their families to make informed decisions about donation.
A far greater number of people have the opportunity to donate tissues for transplantation.
For transplantation to be successful, tissue donation doesn’t require the donor’s death to have occurred under the same limited circumstances as organ donation. Unlike organs, tissue can be stored for varying periods of time.
Find out more: View the Eye and Tissue Donation Fact Sheet (932KB PDF)
Will the person's organs definitely be transplanted?
If the family supports donation, everything possible will be done to make sure those wishes are fulfilled. However, at the time of the donation it can sometimes become clear that organs intended for donation are not in fact medically suitable for transplantation. The hospital staff will discuss this with the family if it arises.
Am I assumed to be an organ and tissue donor unless I opt out?
Australia operates on the ‘opt in' system where you choose whether to be a donor or not. If you have opted out by stating ‘no' on the Australian Organ Donor Register, donation will not proceed. If you have signed ‘yes' on the Register, or not registered at all, your family will still need to give consent.
How do I register my decision to be a donor?
People 16 years of age or older can register their donation decision on the Australian Organ Donor Register.
The Australian Organ Donor Register (the Donor Register) is the only national register for people to record their decision about becoming an organ and tissue donor for transplantation after death.
The Donor Register ensures a person’s donation decision can be verified 24 hours a day, seven days a week by authorised personnel anywhere in Australia. In the event of a person’s death, information about their donation decision, accessed from the Donor Register by authorised personnel, can be provided to the family of the deceased.
Recording your decision on the Donor Register is voluntary and you have complete choice over which organs and tissues you wish to donate. If you don’t want to become an organ and tissue donor, you can register your decision not to donate on the Donor Register.
Can I register if I'm under 18 or can I register my children?
You can register an 'intent to be an organ and tissue donor' with the Australian Organ Donor Register from the age of 16. You can only fully register from the age of 18. Children cannot be registered by their parents, but that does not prevent them from being donors as the family can approve donation.
If you are under 18, or have children, a frank discussion about donation ensures the family is prepared if they need to make the decision.
Is organ and tissue donation against my religion?
Many Australians of diverse backgrounds are unsure about whether their culture or faith supports or allows organ and tissue donation. This uncertainty is one of the key barriers to making a decision, or sharing that decision with loved ones, about organ and tissue donation.
Most religions support organ and tissue donation as an act of compassion and generosity. This includes Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. If a family has any questions they would like to discuss, the hospital staff can provide them with additional information, and assist them in contacting their religious leader.
For more information about your faith and culture in a range of languages, take a look at our multicultural resources.
Why do families need to discuss and know each other’s donation decision?
It is important for every Australian family to discuss and know each other’s donation decisions.
People of any age regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion can one day need a life-transforming or life-saving transplant. Around 1,600 people are on Australian organ transplant waiting lists at any one time.
Very few people – less than 1 per cent – will die in hospital in the specific circumstances where organ donation is possible. Many more have the opportunity to donate tissue.
To optimise every potential organ and tissue donor, every Australian family needs to ask and know their loved ones’ donation decisions. This is because, in Australia, the family of every potential donor will be asked to confirm the donation decision of their loved one before organ and/or tissue donation can proceed.
Although 60% of Australians have discussed the subject with family members, 36% of people feel confident that they know their loved ones’ donation decisions. Importantly, 93% of those who do know their loved ones’ donation decision say they would uphold their decision.
What happens if my family can't be contacted when I die?
All efforts will be made by the hospital and, if necessary, the police to contact your family and tell them you are in hospital. If your family cannot be contacted, a designated officer will try to contact your friends or acquaintances to see if they knew your donation decision.
The Australian Organ Donor Register will be checked. The officer will then make a recommendation to the medical team.
Will my family receive information about the patients who have benefited from the donation?
Australian law restricts identifying information being shared between donor and recipient families. However, the donation staff will provide ongoing information about which organs and tissues were transplanted, and the progress of the recipients. Donor families and transplant recipients can write anonymous letters to each other through the state or territory donation agency.
What support services are available for donor families?
The DonateLife staff will keep in contact with the family and provide ongoing support and information. State and territory DonateLife agencies can provide access to bereavement support and care.
You can find contact details for the DonateLife agency in your state or territory here.
Can I choose who gets my organs and tissue?
No. Organs are allocated to transplant recipients in a fair, equitable process that takes no account of race, religion, gender, social status, disability or age - unless age is relevant to the organ matching criteria.
Waiting lists are managed by different groups according to the organ involved and the state or territory where the recipient is located.
Australia has strict guidelines about the allocation of organs and tissues. The Transplantation Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) has developed guidelines for organ transplantation, Organ Transplantation from Deceased Donors: Consensus Statement on Eligibility Criteria and Allocation Protocols.
Allocation is a complex process. When an organ (other than kidneys) becomes available for donation, a DonateLife donor coordinator passes the necessary information to transplant units in that state. If there is no suitable recipient, the organ is offered to transplant units in other states and territories on a roster basis that is designed to promote equity.
Criteria used in considering potential organ transplant recipients include:
- how well the organs match the person
- how long the person has been waiting for a transplant
- how urgent the transplant is
- whether the organ can be made available to the person in time.
Will the person look different?
When a person dies, it is usual for them to appear pale and for their skin to feel cool, as blood and oxygen are no longer circulating around the body. However, the donation operation does not result in any other significant changes to the person's appearance. The surgical incision made during the operation will be closed and covered as in any other operation and will not be visible beneath the person's clothes.
Will funeral arrangements be affected?
Organ and tissue donation does not affect funeral arrangements. Viewing the body and an open casket funeral are both possible. If a Coroner's investigation is required, this may delay funeral arrangements.
When is a Coroner's investigation required?
Some deaths, such as deaths from unnatural causes or where the cause of death is unknown, are required by law to be investigated by the state or territory Coroner. In these circumstances, a coronial autopsy may be required. The hospital staff will discuss this with the family if it arises.
Most state and territory Coroner's Offices provide access to counsellors who can provide more detailed information and support about the process when a coronial investigation is required.
Will my family be expected to pay for the cost of donation?
No. There is no financial cost to the family after death has been formally certified, however your family will be responsible for your funeral expenses.
Can I donate my body to science after donation?
Yes. It is possible to donate your body to science after or if organ and tissue donation is not possible. Donation for science is handled directly by Universities. Each University donation program is different and may or may not be able to arrange to receive a body after organ donation has proceeded, if this is your wish. You would need to contact each University to ask them about their arrangements.
It is important to know that donated organs and tissues will never be used for medical research unless explicit written permission is given by your family. If any organ or tissue that has been donated is unable to be transplanted and your family are not comfortable donating to a research program, they can choose to have the organ or tissue returned to their loved one's body or respectfully disposed.
I lived in the UK during ‘mad cow disease' – can I donate my donate organs or tissues?
You may still be able to donate your organs but not your tissues.
Is transplantation always successful?
Australia is internationally recognised for its successful transplants and its long-term survival of recipients. As with any operation, there are some risks associated with transplantation surgery, however, the majority of recipients benefit greatly from their transplants and are able to lead full and active lives as a result.
What is a 'living donor'?
In Australia, living donors are able to donate a kidney or part of the liver. Most living donors are family members or close friends of the recipient. The operation will not proceed until strict medical and legal criteria have been met. There must be no evidence of coercion, monetary payment or reward and the donor must have full knowledge of the risks and benefits of the donation.
The Australian Government commenced a two-year pilot on 1 July 2013 to support leave for living organ donors. The pilot is intended to alleviate some of the financial burden of living organ donation by providing a payment to employers, to be passed on in the form of paid leave to employees who are unable to work for a period of time because they have donated an organ. On 12 May 2015, the Australian Government announced that the programme would be extended until 1 July 2017, with important changes.
The payment to employers, including self-employed donors, is available for up to nine weeks, based on a 38 hour week, at up to the National Minimum Wage ($656.90 per week from 1 July 2015). For more information visit http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/Leave-for-living-organ-donors
What is paired kidney exchange?
The Australian Paired Kidney Exchange Programme (AKX) works to maximise the number of live kidney donor transplants. Suppose a person wishes to give a family member or friend a kidney but can't because they have a different blood type or incompatible tissue. The AKX programme pairs them with another couple in the same situation.
For example, Peter wants to donate a kidney to his wife Mary but he has blood type A and Mary is blood type B. They register with the Australian Paired Kidney Exchange Programme. Meanwhile, Julia wants to donate a kidney to her son George but she is blood type B and George is blood type A. Through the programme, Peter anonymously gives George a kidney and Julia anonymously gives Mary a kidney.
Read more: What is paired kidney exchange?