Increasing numbers of people are choosing to donate the whole or part of their body after they die, either for use in transplants or for medical training. While it is possible to express organ donation in your will or letter of wishes, due to the time constraints on donation it is sensible to also register with the NHS Organ Donor Register and carry an organ donor card.
The NHS Organ Donor Register is the most popular form of organ donation. But being on the register is no guarantee that your organs will be used. Organs can only be donated in some circumstances, and for most organs the person must have died in hospital in intensive care for them to be used. Human tissue, however, can be donated up to 48 hours after death and if the circumstances are right, up to 50 people can benefit from tissue donated from just one person.
If you have a donor card that pre-dates 1994, you need to sign up to the new register and get a new card.
If you do decide to become an organ donor, it is very important to make sure your loved ones know about your decision. It may be distressing for relatives to find out your wishes at an already difficult time.
Whole body donation
While organ donation is by far the most common decision, it is also possible to donate your whole body for medical training. Actual bodies form an important part of the training of medical students, as many advanced techniques need to be practised on bodies rather than models.
However, as with organ donation, it is not always possible for a body to be accepted. Whether it is possible will depend on the requirements of the medical schools at the time, and the circumstances of the death.
If you wish to donate your whole body, it is essential that you make your wishes known in writing and that it is witnessed. This can either be done by including it in your will, or through a specialist form supplied by your local medical school.
Post mortem examinations for medical research
One additional option is to give your advance consent to a post-mortem. Post-mortems allow doctors to learn about any medical conditions you have had, and typically involve keeping samples of organs or tissue for further investigation or research. After a very short delay, your body would be returned to your family for your funeral.
Post-mortems typically happen if you die in hospital, particularly if you were suffering from a complicated medical condition. Although, it may still be possible to be arranged if you die at home. If you are interested in giving advance consent, it is important to talk to your specialist so any special instructions can be given to your family.