Rise in patients on heart transplant waiting list

3 December 2017        

Category: Research

An image showing surgeons performing heart surgery

The number of people on the waiting list for a new heart in the UK has risen by 162 per cent since 2008, with around 250 people now anxiously awaiting the life-saving operation first carried out in South Africa 50 years ago today.

The figure from NHS Blood and Transplant shows the growing need for potential donors to make their wishes known so that more lives can be saved.

50 years of heart transplants

On the 50th anniversary of the world’s first heart transplant, the BHF is encouraging people to talk to their loved ones about organ donation. Around half of all adults in England have never talked to anyone about their wishes around organ donation, even though 8 in 10 say they support it.

Vicky Small is waiting for a heart transplantVicky Small from Bournemouth has heart failure. The 43-year-old was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy – a disease of the heart muscle that causes changes to the size and shape of the organ – and now fears she may never get the new heart she so desperately needs because of the lack of organ donors.

“It’s so sad,” says Vicky. “And it’s also really frightening to think that I might never be lucky enough to receive a new heart because people are not having these uncomfortable, but vital, conversations with their loved ones.

“I have restrictive cardiomyopathy, I am in heart failure and I really need a new heart. Please, let your loved ones know if you want to donate your organs. It’s incredibly important you ‘have the chat’ - before it's too late.”

Start a conversation, save a life

Many people think that all you need to do to become an organ donor after your death is join the NHS Organ Donor Register or carry a donor card. But even if you die in circumstances where you could become a donor, your family will still be asked what they want for you. 

More than half of families refuse a donation when they don’t explicitly know the wishes of their loved one. If your family doesn't know your decision they may not support it and the NHS must respect their choice, even if you are on the register.

Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive of the British Heart Foundation, said: “Heart transplants can provide a lifeline for people with irreversibly diseased or damaged hearts. Initially thought of as laughably risky, the operation has developed over the last 50 years so that hundreds of successful heart transplants are carried out in the UK every year.

“But this is not enough. We need to give those waiting for a new heart the best chance of actually receiving a healthy organ. This will only happen if we start the conversations with our loved ones so that, if the situation arises, they will be able to honour our wishes and save a life.” 

Making waiting lists obsolete

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation, said: “On the 50th anniversary of the first heart transplant, we can look back and see how cardiovascular research, funded in part by the British Heart Foundation, has turned this fledgling procedure into a life-changing, life-saving operation.

“The BHF continues to fund research into organ rejection and other approaches to help improve success rates, as well as into regenerative medicine to try and repair the heart without the need for surgery. The hope is that, one day, this research will help to make heart transplant operations – and waiting lists for a new heart – a thing of the past.”