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Health Correspondent Samantha Poling reports
"Doctors say they hope this change in the law will restore trust"
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Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 15:10 GMT
Organ retention reforms unveiled
Health Minister Susan Deacon
Susan Deacon is aiming for a change of culture
Scottish hospitals have stored nearly 6,000 human organs, according to an official report.

Health Minister Susan Deacon has ordered an urgent tightening of the rules for organ retention - but she stressed there was no Scottish equivalent to the scandal at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool.

The Scottish investigation was ordered last September after concern arose that hospitals had been retaining organs without proper consent.

There were several controversial cases involving Yorkhill Children's Hospital in Glasgow, where bereaved parents found that the organs of cot death victims had been kept without their knowledge.

Professor Sheila McLean
Professor Sheila McLean headed the inquiry
The review group, led by Glasgow University Professor of Medical Ethics Sheila McLean, stressed the situation was not on the same scale as in England.

But they did find that past practice in Scotland had led to a significant breakdown in trust between relatives and the medical profession and a sense of betrayal.

The report recommended that no hospital post mortem examination should be carried out without the consent of relatives, unless it was ordered by the procurator fiscal, and that organs should not be kept without specific consent.

It said there should be better communication between hospitals and relatives and all NHS trusts should nominate a specific member of staff - along with a dedicated helpline - to deal with enquiries from bereaved parents.

The report also calls for an introduction of a standard consent form and for hospitals to pay for the burial costs for the organs that have been retained.

We have a responsibility - and obligations to all those affected - to learn the lessons of the past

Health Minister Susan Deacon

The review group had been "dismayed" to find that for many relatives, obtaining information about which organs had been retained was unnecessarily complex.

And all hospitals with retained organs had been told to carry out an audit to ensure relatives can get accurate information.

Health Minister Susan Deacon promised to bring in sweeping changes in the wake of the report.

She expressed her determination to act on its findings and ensure that this "painful episode in the history of the NHS is brought to a close".

The Scottish Executive will back major changes to the current legislation to make it an offence for a doctor to remove or retain an organ without seeking informed consent, she said.

NHS health chiefs in Scotland will also be held to account for their hospital's performance in meeting a tough new national standard on post-mortem practices.

Ms Deacon said the issue was one of the most difficult and sensitive which she has had to deal with as health minister.

Parents were told children had been buried without their organs
"Everyone, the review group, parents, the executive and the medical profession itself are now united in the view that past practice was unacceptable," she said.

"We have a responsibility - and obligations to all those affected - to learn the lessons of the past, to act on them and ensure that this never happens again."

Doctors' leaders expressed their "heartfelt distress" at the pain caused to families by the practice of organ retention in Scotland.

Dr John Garner, chairman of the British Medical Association's Scottish Council, also said the health service as a whole had to learn from the report.

Improved communication

He said: "In seeking to protect patients and relatives from the details of a post-mortem we now know that we have added to their distress."

Dr Garner called for "improved communication with patients and relatives".

He said: "It is our responsibility to ensure that consent is fully informed and the wishes of relatives are respected."

Head of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland James Kennedy said: "Consent should never be about obtaining a signature on a piece of paper - it's a process that should fully involve parents and relatives every step of the way."

"The proposed tightening of procedures will help regain the confidence of the local community and reassure them that this type of situation can never happen again."

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See also:

30 Jan 01 | Scotland
Minister's organs reform pledge
18 Jan 01 | Scotland
Parents to get burial cash
22 Sep 00 | Scotland
Organ retention policy review
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