Easier organ donation in Hong Kong for Facebook users

Government is developing app that will allow easier registration and spread message, but whether it will be binding remains unclear

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 December, 2012, 5:46am

The government is developing a Facebook app through which organ donors will be able to register, and at the same time spread awareness of the life-saving initiative to their friends.

Dr Regina Ching Cheuk-tuen, assistant director of health promotion at the Centre for Health Protection, announced the plan, which hopes to tap millions of Facebook users registered in Hong Kong.

Although organ donor declarations turned digital in 2008, when the Department of Health introduced the online Centralised Organ Donation Register, Ching said the Facebook app was also a convenient way to boost the process.

"We have a plan to develop a programme to be added on Facebook. It is like a smartphone app and is very easy to use," the health official said.

"Using the programme, users can declare publicly that they are registered to be potential organ donors. If a friend clicks the 'Like' button, the message can be seen by all the user's friends and spread the message around.

"The donor can make sure that his or her relatives and friends know their wishes when it comes to making the critical decision of whether to donate organs," she said.

Ching said the department was open to any effective way to promote organ donation, including joining Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's own organ-donation initiative.

In May, Zuckerberg's company rolled out a feature that allows users to say on their profiles that they are organ donors. But the feature is so far limited to Australia, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States.

The health department started promoting causes on Facebook last year, setting up a fan page where news and stories about organ transplants were posted.

It is estimated that organ transplants have saved 128 lives this year.

But Ching said the fan page was not enough, so officials decided to extend their reach on the social network.

Ching estimates about 1 million Hongkongers signed up to be organ donors the old way - by signing a pink donation card that they should keep with them at all times.

As of December 7, the online registry had 112,667 names, or 1.5 per cent of the population. It marked its fourth anniversary last month.

Over those four years, the list grew by about 2,000 names each month.

The new Facebook app, however, could reach more than 4 million active users of the social network in the city.

The health department could not say what the cost of the project was and whether registering through the app would be legally binding, as the project is still in its early stages.

Ching said organ donation was still taboo in traditional Chinese society, hampering an effort that could save hundreds of patients a year.

"Most relatives will respect the wish of the deceased person if they know it was his intention to donate organs," Ching said.

"But most of the time such wishes are unknown to others, and the family would rather give up the chance due to a Chinese tradition of keeping the body intact to respect the dead."

About 2,000 patients, including some who are gravely ill, are still awaiting an organ transplant.

As of October, at least 128 lives have been saved in Hong Kong by organ transplants, with vital organs like the kidneys, liver, heart and lungs taken from donors.

There have also been 345 cases of donations of non-vital organs and tissues such as corneas, skin and bones. The figure exceeded the 99 successful transplants recorded last year, according to data from the Hospital Authority.

Hong Kong's donation rate of 6.7 per cent in 2010 is much lower than the 32 per cent in Spain, but the city has among the best donation rates in Asia.