What does organ donation mean to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?

As a Flinders University researcher and intensive care specialist at Alice Springs Hospital, Dr Paul Secombe believes we can learn more about what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples think about the idea and process of organ donation.

To assist with this, he has been awarded a Flinders Foundation Health Seed Grant to help develop a better description of the perspectives of death and critical illness amongst Aboriginal Australians living in Central Australia.

The donation of organs after death, including kidneys, heart and lungs, means patients can receive life-prolonging transplants.

Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples more commonly suffer organ failures - in particular kidney failure – compared with the general Australian population, the rate of consent for donation by loved ones is substantially lower.

“Identifying what is behind the lower rates of consent for organ donation has not been systematically explored amongst minority groups, including Indigenous Australians,” Dr Secombe explains.

“Whilst there is anecdotal evidence that resistance to organ donation is based on Aboriginal social, cultural and spiritual beliefs, it is important to seek to capture the actual experiences and perspectives of Indigenous people themselves.

“Although speaking about death, even in a conceptual way, is difficult for everyone, being able better to understand what is most important for individuals, families and communities may improve these conversations.”

Dr Secombe hopes this work will help improve communication strategies between doctors, who typically have been trained in a western medical model of ideas of death and dying, and Aboriginal families. From this, a more complete understanding of attitudes to organ donation may emerge.

“This project potentially benefits critically ill patients and their families at times of high emotional stress,” Dr Secombe says.

“As well as suffering a disproportionately high rate of critical care hospital admissions, Indigenous Australians have a rate of kidney failure requiring dialysis treatment that is the highest in the world.

“As clinicians, we have a responsibility to our patients and their families to explain that, in some cases, there is the possibility of organ donation after death and that something positive may come from such a tragedy.

“I hope that this research will develop a greater sensitivity and transparency during conversations that are always emotionally and culturally complex.

“A more informed description of what organ donation means to families may reduce the number of lost opportunities for families to consent to the process because of a lack of shared understanding.”

Research category: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health

Project title: Exploring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Attitudes to Organ Donation: A Pilot Study

Lead researcher: Dr Paul Secombe

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