Helen Opdam - National Medical Director

Helen Opdam headshot 2023

'It's great to look back, but I'm always thinking about the next thing. I want things to be better. I see that things can be better. I don't want to stop where we are now.'

- Helen Opdam

As told by Helen Opdam, The Organ and Tissue Authority 

When I started testing a pilot for hospital death audits in 1998, I didn’t expect to watch that one small idea grow into what it has become today. Over my time working in organ and tissue donation, I’ve seen incredible progress in the health outcomes for people on the transplant waitlist. However, I’m not planning on stopping here.

2024 marks 10 years in my role as National Medical Director for the OTA, but my interest in organ donation began long before in 1998 as an Intensive Care Specialist at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne. It was here that a colleague and I started looking into Australia’s organ donation rates. At the time, they were incredibly low compared to many other developed countries.                                                   

We knew that it was mostly in intensive care units that donation was possible, so we set out to discover why so many opportunities for organ donation were missed there. 

I led a project funded by the Victorian Government that looked at the medical records of deaths in 12 Victorian hospitals. When these hospital death cases were closely examined, we discovered many gaps in the system. 

The national DonateLife Audit was developed from this study and is now an incredibly valuable monitoring tool. It gives us our basic stats like consent rates, and informs strategy, such as how to expand donation practice. No other country has something quite like this. 

Unless we understand what is happening in hospitals, how can we be sure we are identifying all donation opportunities? When only about 2% of people who die in hospital each year can become organ donors, every opportunity is precious and we must understand the reasons if donation does not proceed. 

The Audit gives us all our key information, including consent rates for when families say yes to donation. It also gives us information about how to improve family care and communication, and provides feedback to hospitals about how well they are following best clinical practice. It tells us which hospitals are doing things well, and which hospitals could be doing things better. 

Every time something in the system isn't done well and a potential donor has been missed, this also means someone out there has potentially missed out on a transplant. In doing this work, we are honouring the choices of individuals and their families, while doing our best to give Australians who rely on the system a chance for a transplant. 

It’s different when it’s a number in an audit. It’s so meaningful to go out and meet transplant recipients, or families who have chosen to donate in times of great loss. It makes my commitment to this work feel worthwhile. 

It's really important to look back to acknowledge my achievements and reflect on the progress that I’ve seen in my time with DonateLife.

However, I'm always thinking about what’s next. I want things to be better. I see that things can be better. I don't want to stop where we are now. 

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