Objectives To increase postmortem organ donation rates, several countries are adopting an opt-out (presumed consent) policy, meaning that individuals are deemed donors unless they expressly refused so. Although opt-out countries tend to have higher donation rates, there is no conclusive evidence that this is caused by the policy itself. The main objective of this study is to better assess the direct impact of consent policy defaults per se on deceased organ recovery rates when considering the role of the family in the decision-making process. This study does not take into account any indirect effects of defaults, such as potential psychological and behavioural effects on individuals and their relatives.
Design Based on previous work regarding consent policies, we created a conceptual model of the decision-making process for deceased organ recovery that included any scenario that could be directly influenced by opt-in or opt-out policies. We then applied this model to internationally published data of the consent process to determine how frequently policy defaults could apply.
Main outcome measures We measure the direct impact that opt-in and opt-out policies have per se on deceased organ recovery.
Results Our analysis shows that opt-in and opt-out have strictly identical outcomes in eight out of nine situations. They only differ when neither the deceased nor the family have expressed a preference and defaults therefore apply. The direct impact of consent policy defaults is typically circumscribed to a range of 0%–5% of all opportunities for organ recovery. Our study also shows that the intervention of the family improves organ retrieval under opt-in but hinders it under opt-out.
Conclusions This study may warn policy makers that, by emphasising the need to introduce presumed consent to increase organ recovery rates, they might be overestimating the influence of the default and underestimating the power granted to families.