Coming Soon From Your Employer: Organ Donor Cards

From the WebMD Archives

April 17, 2001 -- (Washington) --The problem is all too familiar: Too many very sick people are dying while waiting for organ transplantation. Now the Bush administration has launched a campaign to increase organ and tissue donations. The country's major employers -- and small companies as well -- will soon be distributing national organ donor cards to their employees.

At a ceremony held in Washington Tuesday, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy G. Thompson unveiled the new organ donor card as part of the national "Workplace Partnership for Life" campaign. Thompson also announced plans to do the following:

  • Commit $3 million to evaluate the effectiveness of the various strategies to increase organ and tissue donations
  • Immediately review the potential for organ and tissue registries, where donors' wishes could be recorded electronically and made available to families and hospitals whenever needed
  • Create a national medal to honor the families of organ donors

"The need for organ donations is increasingly outstripping the supply," says Thompson. "It is so important for us to redouble our efforts in solving this problem. ... This is just the beginning. This initiative sets out to aggressively increase organ donation throughout America."

Employers participating in the program's launch include: General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Daimler Chrysler Corporation, UAW, Verizon, 3M, and the U.S. Postal Service. Other employers and employer groups will be encouraged to develop their own campaigns.

"This includes not only large corporations and unions, but also the local employer and the small staff of employees," Thompson says.

On the new organ donor card, each individual can designate the wish to have all organs and tissue donated, including bone marrow and blood. The card also has lines for two witnesses' signatures.

More important is that families be aware of their loved ones' intentions. "The donor card alone is not enough to guarantee that a donor's wishes will be known and carried out," says Thompson.

Donor registries will help ensure that families and hospitals know an individual's wishes, Thompson also announced today. Donor registries -- similar to those in place in 16 states -- could be established throughout the country. Thompson has asked the HHS's Office of Inspector General to oversee study of existing registries.

Organ donor issues are certainly not new to Thompson. During his tenure as Wisconsin's governor, Thompson fought then-president Clinton's efforts to switch organ distribution from a geographic basis to one based on medical need.

"I didn't like having organs taken from Wisconsin and transported to another state," he tells WebMD. "Now I look at the nation as a whole. ... My conviction is, let's work together. Let's solve the problem. Let's see if we can't get people to reduce that 76,000 [number of people on the waiting list] so everybody has a chance, whether it be tissue, marrow, blood, or an organ. It's not taking from one for another. It's increasing the amount so we can solve the problem."

Distribution around the country, Thompson tells WebMD, is "very fair. There are some problems, ... there's no question about that. Several states do a better job than others. The myths that the rich and famous get organs [before others] is not reality. It's a myth, and we're trying to knock down those myths."

Numbers of cadaver donations -- of hearts, lungs, and livers -- have increased in the past few years, says Joel Newman, a spokesman for the United Network for Organ Sharing. In 2000, those donations increased by 2.7%. But it's still not enough to meet the need, he tells WebMD.

"It's the cadaver donations that are most critical, and that's where the real shortage has been," Newman tells WebMD. "On average, 15 people die every day waiting for an organ transplant."

"There is no long-term medical therapy to keep those patients alive," Newman says. "Many will die without having a transplant."

The numbers of so-called "living donations" -- in which a kidney or (in very rare cases) segments of liver, pancreas, or intestine is taken from a living donor -- have increased in the past year by more than 16%, says Newman. The vast majority of living donations involve kidneys, and the waiting list for kidney transplantation is the nation's longest, he says.

Of more than 70,000 people awaiting transplants, more than two-thirds are awaiting kidney transplants. However, these aren't the sickest patients, says Newman.

"In some cases, the transplants are life-saving," he tells WebMD. "But for most, they are life-enhancing. People can survive long-term on dialysis."

Getting families to talk about organ donation is the biggest goal of the national campaign, Newman tells WebMD.

"Too many families decline donation because they don't know what their loved one wanted," he says. "They don't want to make the wrong decision. But very few families would override the wishes stated in an organ donor card."