Tort reform gets own bracelet campaign

Physicians hope to spread awareness next through green T-shirts.

By Damon Adams — Posted Dec. 6, 2004

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This is one accessory not likely to make the fashion shows in Paris. It clashes with nearly every color and boasts no precious jewels.

Doctors in southern Illinois love it, though. They wear the lime-green wristband to see patients, visit friends and go out to dinner. The item doesn't make much fashion sense, but it sure makes a lot of professional sense.

The wristbands are a sign of solidarity, a tiny billboard that urges "Keep Doctors in Illinois" in black letters and offers a unique approach to the fight against rising medical liability insurance rates. Physicians hope that wearing the bracelets will rally support across Illinois and push state legislators to act on tort reform.

"We needed to really bring this issue to the forefront and have it be an everyday thing. Step one is to get the message out, and that's where the bracelets came in," said Lynne Willett Nowak, MD, an internal medicine hospitalist at Memorial Hospital in Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis. "You don't want something to blend, and lime green doesn't blend."

Illinois is one of the states the AMA lists as being battered by a medical liability insurance crisis that has forced physicians to leave states, retire early or reduce services. The AMA and other physician groups have fought on state and national levels for reforms such as caps on noneconomic damages.

St. Clair and Madison counties in southern Illinois have been hit hard by rising premiums, physicians said. In the last 18 months, about 160 doctors have fled the area.

During the summer, Dr. Nowak and other physicians with the St. Clair County Medical Society tossed around ideas to raise awareness of their plight. Dr. Nowak concocted the bracelet idea, inspired after watching the Olympics and seeing people sporting yellow wristbands from the Lance Armstrong Foundation to raise cancer awareness.

"It's definitely a trendy thing right now for community awareness in a cause," she said.

Dr. Nowak designed rubbery wristbands like the ones worn by hospital patients, except these have a snap that allows wearers to remove them.

"That was really important, because we didn't want people stuck in them," she said.

Going green for a cause

Grant money from a pharmaceutical company and funds from local hospitals provided financing for the first order in September of 50,000 green wristbands.

"Those were gone in less than a week," Dr. Nowak said. Another 50,000 were ordered, and they were gobbled up by physicians, patients and others at hospitals, pharmacies, clinics and town festivals.

In all, about 200,000 of the free bands are being handed out. They're so hip that some teenagers are turning around and selling their wristband for $1.

"Most of our hospital employees have worn one at one point or another," said Ron McMullen, president of Alton Memorial Hospital in Alton, Ill., which has given away several thousand wristbands.

Physicians say they aren't sure if any other states have started similar campaigns, but Illinois seems to be embracing the bracelets.

"They have started to take off across the state. It's been a good mechanism to get the message out in a non-political way," said Harry Maier, CEO of Memorial Hospital in Belleville.

The Illinois State Medical Society likes the grassroots effort for keeping the liability issue in the spotlight. "From that standpoint, we certainly approve of what they're doing," said Ken Printen, MD, a general surgeon in Evanston, Ill., and medical society president.

AMA Immediate Past President Donald J. Palmisano, MD, said wearing the bracelet alerts people to the liability crisis. "The more we can bring this to the public's attention, the more we will get action," he said.

Even the Lance Armstrong Foundation doesn't mind the copycats.

"We consider it the sincerest form of flattery. There are so many [different wristbands with causes] now, I can't keep them all straight," said foundation spokeswoman Michelle Milford.

So popular are the medical liability wristbands that they have spawned green T-shirts with the same message. Unlike the bands, the shirts cost $5 each.

"I absolutely think this is working," Dr. Nowak said. "When I drive down the highway and see someone with their arm out the window [with a wristband], I say, 'That's pretty cool.' "

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External links

AMA on medical liability reform (link)

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