Open Journal of Organ Transplant Surgery, 2012, 2, 1-4
http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojots.2012.21001 Published Online February 2012 (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/ojots) 1
Is There a Crisis in Heart Transplantation?
Reflection over 10 Years
Karin Purshouse1, Stephen Large2*, Henry Darg ie3, John Dunning2, James Neuberger4
1Newcastle University, Newcastle, UK
2Papworth Hospital, Cambridge, UK
3Hon Consultant Cardiologist Western Infirmary, Glasgow, UK
4Associate Medical Director for NHS Blood and Transplant, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, UK
Received October 14, 2011; revised December 1, 2011; accepted December 20, 2011
Heart transplantation is withou t doubt a v ery effective treatment for patients’ whose lives and well- being are threatened
by their failing h eart. W e prev iously categ orized o ur co ncerns into four areas or Ds: Donor av ailability, Diso rganization,
Disillusionment (of clinicians) and Disaffection (of tomorrow’s clinicians). After a decade, this is a timely reflection on
this crisis of cardiac transplantation. It is also appropriate to set this in the context of a fifth D, the Demand for heart
transplantation. In this reflective analysis, we use the 5 Ds to explore the current climate in heart transplantation, with
particular reference to the situatio n in the UK.
Keywords: Heart Transplantation; Heart Failure
1. The 5 Ds
It is almost a decade since we asked the question “Is
there a crisis in cardiac transplantation” . Heart trans-
plantation is without doubt a very effective treatment for
patients with heart failure, and a decade has passed since
we explored a potential crisis in cardiac transplantation.
We categorized our concerns into four areas or Ds: Do-
nor availability, Disorganization, Disillusionment (of clini-
cians) and Disaffection (of tomorrow’s clinicians) . So
how have things changed in the last 10 years in the UK?
MacGowan and colleagues recently discussed the decline
in cardiac transplantation, focusing on the evolution of
surgical techniques . Here, we add a fifth D—Demand
and present a detailed exploration of the “Five Ds” to
build on the findings of previou s commentaries.
There are good data available now, so much so that we
can see clearly a steady decline in the number of cardio-
thoracic donor organs available and transplants under-
taken. UK cardio-thoracic donor organ numbers have
halved from 244 to 115 between 1999 and 2010, with the
number of transplants falling correspondingly in this pe-
riod . In 2002 we described a “life cycle of cardiac
transplantation” similar to that seen in industry , with
growth, mature and decline phases and demonstrated that
it was in decline 10 years ago. Data from the Interna-
tional Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation (ISHLT)
indicates continued decline .
This is not restricted to the UK as the number of trans-
plants has been declining steadily worldwide (Figure 1).
Whilst it would be easy to simply blame the decline in
transplantation on the fall in donors, we have sought to
explore the wider barriers and consequences thereof on
cardiac transplantation. It is our opinion that there are
various levels at which disorganisation might limit a do-
nor organ being used, and it is clear that some of these
have improved . Barriers to transplantation may be
neatly categorised into three groups which will be ev alu-
ated in turn: 1) dono r registration, 2) converting a poten-
tial donor organ into an available organ, and 3) the even-
Figure 1. Number of Heart Transplants reported by year.
With kind permission from ISHLT (2010).
opyright © 2012 SciRes. OJOTS
K. PURSHOUSE ET AL.
tual use of the organ.
1) In terms of organ registration: NHS Blood and
Transplant has done much to improve donor registration
organisation, and subsequently just over a quarter of the
UK population are on the organ donor list. The issue of
low donor supply has been tackled by developing inno-
vative donor registration routes, such as through the
Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), when re-
gistering with a General Practitioner or when applying
for a store card with a national chemist chain. Recently
they launched the first multi-media campaign. Despite
these efforts, registration rates remain low. In addition,
only 38% of heart-beating solid organ donors permit the
donation of cardiothoracic organs . Perhaps there is a
Distaste for heart transplantation in our population which
is proving the limiting factor, and a fear of planning for
the end of life at a young age .
2) The undertaking of the recent National Potential Do-
nor Audit (a 24 month study between April 2007 and
March 2009 ) showed 30,693 deaths in UK intensive care
units (ICUs) (15,342 per year) and the process of transla-
tion into solid organ donation. Brain stem death was pre-
sent in some 10% (3065). Organ donation was princi-
pally lost through failure to perform brain-stem death
tests in 23% of this group and fu rthe r 37% where co nsen t
for organ donation was not obtained . Two hundred
and fifty eight heart transplants were performed in this 24
month period representing 8% of all ITU deaths . On-
going priorities include engagement with ICU teams to
encourage donation and clarify ethical and legal matters,
and removal of the financial barriers that exist in UK
hospitals for the high cost of retrieving organs by reim-
3) 97% of hearts retrieved were subsequently trans-
1.2. Donor Availability
Donor availability is part of the problem despite an in-
crease in the nu mber of donor registration s (over 16 mil-
lion out of a UK population of around 60 million) . Mo-
re worrisome is donor usage. Although organ donation
continues to fall, 33% of the 623 solid organ donors do-
nated cardiothoracic organs but only 19% (120) of hearts
were transplanted: a rate of 1 used for every 5 donated,
with no clear medical justification for not using the re-
mainder . Ten years ago this was of the order of 1
used of every 3 offered. The reality remains that in the
UK only 43% of those waiting on transplant lists are
transplanted, with 9% dying whilst awaiting a heart 
and so many more removed from the list due to deterio-
ration of their condition making them no longer candi-
dates for heart transplantation. The number of patients on
the waiting list for heart transplantation has probably
never reflected demand and especially so lately with
more than 50% of hear ts tr ansp lan ts in the UK now being
labelled as “urgent”; that is, an acutely ill patient dete-
riorating too fast to get on to the waiting list. These pa-
tients form the tip of a huge iceberg that is made up of
the cardiac deaths in younger people following myocar-
dial infarction at a rate of some 600/100,000. A recent
survey in Scotland has shown that in 2009/10 there were
415 deaths in patients under 65 years of age who died
either in hospital or in the 1st year after admission for
either acute MI or heart failure (personal communication:
Professor Henry Dargie, Hon Consultant Cardiologist
Western Infirmary Glasgow, Former Director of Scottish
Advanced Heart Failure Service).
We previously identified a three-and-a-half fold differ-
ence between individual surgeon’s operating activities
(i.e. number of operations) within units. Things have cha-
nged: units are fewer (6 adult for the UK) and clinical
activity more evenly shared amongst colleagues. How-
ever there is a national performance measure to be met,
demanding a reasonable transplant unit surviv al for heart
recipients at 12 months. It may be an unrealistic bar to
scale considering the direction of clinical heart transplant
activity which is aimed at a po pulation whose life expec-
tancy is likely to be 50% at one year and, overall, no
more than 2 years. A number of units have failed to ac-
hieve this outcome at times lead ing to reviews of practice.
It may be that such a demand is leading to disillusion-
ment amongst transplantation surgeons.
It is important to highlight that activity, describ ed as 115
operations in 2009, amalgamates pediatric and adult
heart transplantation. There are three pediatric centres
and six adult for the UK (two combined units and one
stand alone pediatric centre: a total of seven overall).
Each unit can hope for an annual activity of 22 heart
transplants but reality shows that two centres had an an-
nual activity below 10. Each unit will each have five
surgeons or so wh ich translates into an individual annual
experience of three heart transplants. Is this enough to
maintain the competency of a surgeon? Certainly heart
transplantation is seen as a demanding career by tomor-
row’s clinicians and our concerns that transplant Units’
reliance on senior surgeons indicates a continuing Disaf-
fection towards heart transplantation amongst trainees.
So what of the Demand for cardiac transplantation? There
has been a 48% decrease in the number of patients Regis-
tered on the active heart transplant list be tween 2000 and
2009 . This does not necessarily suggest that Demand
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K. PURSHOUSE ET AL. 3
is waning. This waiting list redu ction could be due to the
waiting list protocol introduced in 2002. The reality is
that at least half of the patients undergoing transplanta-
tion deteriorate too quickly to get on to a waiting list, un-
dergoing urgent heart transp lantation. Waiting lists aside,
what is the Demand likely to be if all patients had ready
access to heart transplantation? If we use the number of
deaths from acute myocardial infarction in those aged
less than 70 years as a crude measure of potentially sal-
vageable lives we find that over 6500 lives could be
saved based on deaths registered in 2008 . This
loosely defined group represents 22.6% of all deaths
from acute myocardial infarction, indicating a massive
Demand. The National Heart Failure Audit further notes
47.5% of all patients admitted with acute heart failure
have either died or been readmitted at one year . We
are not alone in highlighting the significant demand. It is
sobering to recall that the National Service Framework
2000 set a standard for patients in heart failure, stating
that “treatments most likely to both relieve their symp-
toms and reduce their risk of death should be offered”
2. A Future for Heart Transplantation?
What does the future hold for heart transplantation? It’s
tempting to say “not much” unless we address the fol-
lowing 5 points:
1) The possibility of obtaining hearts from new
sources. Animals as heart donors (xenografts) continue to
be explor ed and op timism remains h igh th at research will
translate into clinical trials . Non heart-beating or
Donation after Cardiac Death (DCD) heart donation re-
mains at an experimental stage but shows promise. Ali et
al. have identified that DCD donation may be appropriate
for cardiac transplantation and requires continued inves-
tigation . Renal DCD grafts seem to be as successful
as grafts from brain dead donors (DBD) . These
measures may lead to an increase in donor hearts.
2) Review the expectation of high survival at one year
after heart transplantation. Hypothetically, sixty adult
heart transplants (the number of operations this year)
with, say, 90% survival promises 54 patients will survive
to one year. However 250 patients receiving heart trans-
plants with a lower (70%) expected survival at one year
gives 187 the chance of surviving beyond one year. This
apparent relaxing of standards appears to be unattractive
by significantly raising the patient’s risk of death fol-
lowing heart transplantation as seen at 1 year. Of course,
it does mean that more patients hoping for heart trans-
plantation will receive this life saving treatment.
3) In terms of volume of providers it would be wise to
reduce the number of centres offering heart transplanta-
tion if only to ensure individual centres and their clini-
cians’ competence as activity continues to fall.
4) Used as a bridge to transplantation, mechanical sup-
port in the form of implantable heart assist devices al-
lows patients to live inde pendently with improved quality
of life whilst waiting for a transplant. They are also rec-
ommended as destination therapy in heart failure and
used as such in 10% of patients, despite inferior long
term outcomes compared with transplantation [13,14].
5) In the future, biological repowering of the failing
heart, perhaps with progenitor cell technology, may buy
time for patients waiting for a transplan t .
Without these steps the crisis of heart transplantation
will be resolved b y Disappearance of this extraord inarily
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