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More needs to be done to promote awareness of the importance of tissue donation, writes Kathy Lindsay.

While many Australians are aware of the need for organ donation, such as hearts and kidneys, there is less awareness of the need for donation of other tissue, such as bone and tendons.

Between 2013 and 2016 the number of bone and tissue transplant recipients almost doubled from 3,691 to 7,468 people. Meanwhile, the number of people donating tissue increased by only 414 people to a total of 4,291 people. That's quite a discrepancy.

The majority of bone and tissue donors are living donors, including people having hip replacements who donate their old bone rather than have it discarded as hospital waste. The donated bone is the femoral head, which is the ball of bone on top of the femur. Once cleaned and processed, it can be used for life-enhancing operations for treating conditions caused by genetics, disease or injury. Recipients include children with deformed spines, athletes with fractures and cancer victims facing bone degeneration.

And then there is deceased bone donation. Most people who die in hospital could donate their tissue, not just those who die in an intensive care unit or the emergency department. Bone and tendons can be retrieved up to 24 hours after death.

In Australia we have an opt-in system for tissue and organ donation. Further, the family will be asked for their consent on behalf of the deceased donor and this is sometimes too difficult a decision to make during a time of mourning. Consent rates for tissue donation decline in cases where the family are unaware of the possibility, unaware of their loved ones wishes, and not fully informed about the conditions, process and life-enhancing outcomes of bone and tissue donation. 

Finally, in all states other than South Australia, tissue and organ donation consent is no longer achieved through ticking the box on your driver’s licence. Nowadays, consent is through Medicare or directly through the Organ and Tissue Authority.

Wells Haslem has provided strategic advice, government relations support and media relations services to tissue processing company Australian Biotechnologies and Australian Tissue Donation Network, which runs a femoral head donation program.