11/12/2014 04:56 EST | Updated 01/12/2015 05:59 EST

Saskatchewan government paves way for legislation to modernize organ donation

REGINA - Saskatchewan's government is paving the way for new regulations that will improve patients' access to cornea transplants.

Health Minister Dustin Duncan said a new bill will modernize legislation to eventually allow for the purchase of cornea tissue from outside the province.

"We weren't able to keep up with demand," he said, adding that corneas have to be harvested and transplanted in a short amount of time, requiring timely exchange of information between provinces on what tissue is available.

Duncan said there are about 100 people waiting for corneas in Saskatchewan and the average wait time is two years.

He said Alberta faced a similar problem but has the ability to purchase corneas from out-of-province.

"My understanding is they've substantially decreased their wait times," he said.

Manitoba also purchases corneas to reduce wait times.

Duncan added that once the Human Tissue Gift Act is passed, likely in the spring, the government will create new regulations for cornea transplants.

He added that other regulations will look at information sharing across provinces and also how physicians discuss organ donation options with patients' families.

He said it's a doctor's prerogative to raise the issue but there is no requirement to do so.

"That's where we miss opportunities," he said.

The province will look at whether a physician has an obligation to raise the issue with a family or even refer families directly to a transplant team.

Duncan said the government hasn't contemplated changes to the opt-in organ donation system, but added that it's an ongoing debate in Canada.

"I don't think we're there yet," he said. "It's a very personal decision whether or not you want your organs donated after your death."

He said he would encourage individuals to talk to their families about organ donation to ensure that their wishes are respected.

Transplant surgeon Dr. Mike Moser said the bill will help to break down the barriers surrounding organ donation and transplant.

"There's the potential down the road for mandatory reporting, which is something other provinces have adopted before us," he said. "The access to information will facilitate the sharing of organs across the country."

He added that mandatory reporting of dead or dying patients in provinces including Ontario and Alberta has improved the number of donations there.

"That's really our rate-limiting step when it comes to transplant," Moser said.

"It can be a long and frustrating wait and clearly if there's any way that we can shorten that wait time, that's welcome to these patients and to their families," he said.