COVID-19 Updates: Taking steps to return to normal.
Organ and tissue donation registration is on the rise in Alberta. As of January 11, we now have more than 750,000 Albertans who have registered their wish to become a donor – that’s up 9% from this time last year.
I’d like to thank every Albertan who has taken the selfless step to register as a potential donor – particularly over the last year, when we all have had so much on our minds. Thinking of the needs of other families, and how we can help, is what Albertans do best.
While the pandemic has put strain on plenty of wait lists, government has been working very hard with Alberta Health Services and chartered surgical facilities to make sure people continue to have access to the scheduled surgeries they need for new hips or knees, or to remove cataracts. Alberta has led the way, with physicians and health-care staff working hard during the summer to catch up on surgeries postponed during the spring. While the second wave of the pandemic has created further strain on the health system, our province remains committed to bring down surgical wait times and lead the way in ensuring every Albertan has his or her surgery done within clinically recommended wait times. At the end of December, Alberta had performed almost 90% of the surgeries it had performed by the same time last year – a remarkable testament to the hard work of our health partners.
For those who are waiting for an organ or tissue transplant, the pandemic has not delayed surgeries – but there are currently more than 600 patients waiting for a life-saving organ transplant, and thousands more waiting on tissue donations.
Behind every Albertan waiting to receive a donation, a family is waiting too.
Alberta Health is continuing to explore a number of options to continue improving organ donation rates in the province. The more people who register as donors, the greater chance of a match; the more lives that can be saved and improved, the more families can enjoy the gift of time with their loved ones.
Last fall, after hearing concerns and confusion about how cumbersome the registration process was (it required 2 steps), we amended the Alberta Human Tissue and Organ Donation Act to remove the requirement for a signature when registering consent online via the Alberta Organ and Tissue Donation Registry.
Albertans now have the opportunity to register in one easy step from their phone, computer or laptop without the need to go into a registry office – though that is still an option for those who prefer to use a written form.
Providing online consent saves Albertans registry fees and time. Registry agents can also save considerable time with this one-step process; they no longer have to use a lengthier process to register Albertans, or fax forms to Alberta Health. It is now simpler and quicker to register either online, or with a registry agent.
In addition, the registry now clarifies how Albertans can donate their bodies for education and research. This personal choice is facilitated by completely separate programs requiring registration with one of the anatomical gift programs at either the University of Alberta or the University of Calgary. Body donation through these programs is principally for anatomical study by medical students, and does not allow transplantation.
To further expand the number of potential donors, last year Alberta invited residents of the Northwest Territories (NWT) to voluntarily join the Alberta Organ and Tissue Donation Registry.
Due to a low population density and access to medical care, critical care patients in the NWT are often transported to a hospital in Alberta, but they did not have the opportunity to make a difference by becoming a donor. Now they do.
This is good news for everyone – the patient whose wishes can be fulfilled, the health care team who can confidently act on those wishes and for the Albertan who is waiting for an organ or tissue.
Most recently, Alberta Health approved funding to Alberta Health Services to establish 24/7 donor specialist physicians who will educate other health care professionals to ensure opportunities for organ donation are identified and appropriately managed. This will eliminate missed donor opportunities and improve quality of care for potential donors and recipients.
For patients and families waiting for a life-saving transplant, Albertans who agree to donation are their only hope. And for those who suffer the loss of a loved one who became a donor, there is some comfort in knowing that another life and another family can go on. As one father of a donor put it, “I think of my son as living on, rather than leaving us with nothing”.
Organ donation is only performed with the consent of the deceased’s family, regardless of whether the patient was a registered donor. It is therefore critical that each Albertan discuss their final wishes with their family.
I encourage all Albertans (and residents of the NWT) to join the Alberta Organ and Tissue Donation Registry – Albertans may register either directly online at ultimategiftalberta.ca, or by filling out a form with a registry agent; those in the NWT may complete their donation brochure. You can change your choice at any time.
Ultimately, our goal is to improve donation rates and save every life possible.
Tyler Shandro served as Minister of Health from April 30, 2019 to September 21, 2021.