THOUSANDS of Scots will be asked if they would “regret” failing to donate their organs after they had died in an experiment aimed at boosting the number of life-saving transplants.
They will be targeted in a trial to see whether more will register as donors if made to feel guilty about not doing so.
The £162,000 experiment is being funded by the Scottish Government and organised by medical experts who say it could form the basis of future donation campaigns.
The move has divided expert opinion, with some warning it is wrong to persuade people by promoting a sense of shame.
With more than 600 Scots waiting for life-saving organ transplants, the government has already launched several campaigns to register more donors. But the new trial moves away from the theme of “giving the gift of life” towards asking people to think over the impact of not donating.
Ronan O’Carroll, lead researcher and professor of psychology at Stirling University, said previous research on issues such as safe sex and weight loss revealed people can be persuaded to act if they were asked if they would later regret not doing so. He said: “There is an insufficient supply of donor organs to meet demand for transplants.
“There is, therefore, an urgent need to identify factors that overcome the barriers that deter people from registering as an organ donor.”
He added: “Regret is an emotion experienced when people believe their situation could have been better if they had acted differently. Studies suggest people are more likely to act when they anticipate regret for inaction. Simply asking whether they would later regret inaction can significantly increase the likelihood of an action occurring.”
Around 14,500 Scots will be contacted in the next few months with details of how to join the organ donor register.
While some will simply receive a letter with details of how to join, others will be asked if they would later “feel regret” if they did not join or might later “wish they had”.
The questions are designed to make people think more deeply about organ donation.
Researchers will examine whether this strategy encourages more to come forward than would have done otherwise. If it is a success, official NHS organ donation campaigns could use “regret” as a theme. Although this represents a hardening of approach, it does not require time-consuming legislative changes.
A number of charities support the move. Dr Calum MacKellar, director of research for the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, said: “The idea of guilt is a very Scottish one and I have no ethical worries about this. It’s just a question of whether people will give grudgingly. I do not think guilt is necessarily wrong, in fact sometimes it’s morally acceptable. It will be interesting to see how Scots react.”
However, some campaigners are not convinced. Margaret Watt, chairwoman of the Scotland Patients’ Association said: “Not everyone wants to or is able to become a donor and this might upset people and make them feel guilty. Organ donation is a gift and it would be better to educate people on giving the gift of life instead.”
Many charities back a move to a system of “presumed consent”, in which all adults are potential donors unless they opt out. Ben McKendrick, of the British Heart Foundation Scotland, said: “While we are interested in any initiative that might encourage donors, one thing that would increase donation is an opt-out system.”
An NHS Blood and Transplant spokesman said: “Whilst 60 per cent of us say we support organ donation, only 30 per cent are on the register.”