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Informed consent, high ethics needed for respectful whole-body donation

Body donation memorial, a woman playing violin among pink flowers at a service. (OHSU)
Every year, more than 2,000 learners and faculty at OHSU and other trusted Oregon academic institutions learn from about 100 individuals who donate to the OHSU Body Donation Program annually to advance the education of health professionals. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, OHSU students organized an annual service to honor those body donors. Shown here is a photo taken at the Dec., 6, 2019, memorial service. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Donating one’s body to science is a personal and selfless act that is critical to the education and training of health care professionals in Oregon and beyond. The number of people who directly benefit from this gift is innumerable and far outlasts the initial donation to a whole-body donation program.

Oregon Health & Science University is one of many academic intuitions that gratefully accept whole-body donations to support the education of health care professionals. Every year, donors to OHSU’s Body Donation Program support the education and training of approximately 300 OHSU medical, dental, physician assistant and radiation therapy learners, 200 OHSU residents and clinicians, and 2,000 learners at other trusted academic institutions in Oregon who agree to follow OHSU’s strict medical and ethical standards.

Tamara Ostervoss, a woman with dark medium-length hair and glasses, in a white shirt smiling. (OHSU)
Tamara Ostervoss (OHSU)

As the director of OHSU’s Body Donation Program, it is my responsibility to protect this precious gift and ensure each individual donor is appropriately cared for while they are with us.

Unfortunately, unethical use of whole-body donors by disreputable body donation programs damages the public’s trust and impacts health care education. Recent news coverage describes a concerning event at a Portland hotel where some members of the public reportedly paid to observe an autopsy.

I want to be clear that OHSU treats donors with the utmost of respect and care. We are not associated with private for-profit body donation companies and would never support an event where members of the public were invited to view an autopsy for a fee. We believe donors are entitled to the same respect and protections as living patients and recognize the use of whole-body donors in education is a privilege.

We require all learners, educators and academic partners to abide by these same values when working with donors. Students who learn through our program are required to attend an orientation to understand their responsibilities when working with donors, and we only learn from donors in approved lab spaces with restricted access.

Our learners are honored to care for the donors who serve as their “first patients.” Every year, our learners host a memorial service with donors’ loved ones where they reflect on how their donor’s decision impacted their education. At the service, learners also hear directly from donor families and see photos from their lives. This is a valuable and moving experience for all involved.

OHSU and other academic institutions go to great lengths to care for and protect our donors, even though few of these steps are required by law. We do this because it is the right thing to do and what we would expect from anyone caring for our loved ones.

While local officials review the event, we want to encourage those interested in becoming a whole-body donor to thoroughly understand how a program might use their body after death, and only consent to donating to a specific program after they have all the information they need.

More information on OHSU’s program is available at https://www.ohsu.edu/body-donation/how-donate-science.

A shorter version of the above viewpoint was published by The Oregonian on Nov. 11, 2021, as a letter to the editor.

Tamara Ostervoss is the director of the OHSU Body Donation Program.

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