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Do You Need a Medical Alert ID? It Could Save Your Life

Image of Graphic image of a person's forearm wearing a medical alert bracelet and a close-up of the bracelet. There are a variety of medical alert devices available from online retailers or specialty websites. Whichever type you choose, never leave home without it (Stock image).

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If you suffer from a severe allergy or have a known medical condition, wearing a medical alert identification device can be a life saver.

These can come in many forms – like a bracelet, a tattoo, or a digital device – but whichever you choose, you should never leave home without it.

“The essence of a medical alert product is to bring attention to first responders and/or emergency services of a known condition, treatment, or medical risk factor that could have important impacts on immediate clinical decision making,” said Army Col. (Dr.) Rodd Marcum, command surgeon at the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington.

“These devices also frequently identify next-of-kin or key points of contact in the event of an emergency,” Marcum said.

Marcum said he wears one himself, a bracelet on his wrist. “I tend to put mine on with my first cup of morning coffee and take it off when I go to bed,” he said.

There are a broad range of “passive” and “active” medical alert products, he explained, from simple forms of wearable identification – such as a bracelet, watch strap slide, tattoo, or necklace – to more high-tech devices like smart phone or vehicle applications and dedicated hardware devices worn on an individual or installed in the home.

“They relay key information depending on the platform they employ,” he said. “Most simple passive forms of medical alert identification draw attention by prominently displaying common medical symbols, such as a red caduceus [the iconic medical symbol of a wand twined with a serpent] or a six-point EMS star.”

Active wearable devices, he said, often have an audible warning or recording when activated.

“Many purpose-engineered devices employ wireless technology to facilitate two-way communication with contracted emergency monitoring services,” he said. “On the other end of the spectrum, tattoos placed in prominent locations – such as the wrist, forearm, chest wall, etc. – often display condition-specific symbols or simple word descriptions of medical information.”

He added that medical alert devices often display individual identifying information as well as any medical information that could be helpful to first responders during emergencies. The information could include:

  • Allergies to specific medication
  • Key diagnoses, to include cognitive or communication impairments
  • Important medications the bearer depends on, such as blood thinners, insulin, seizure medication, etc.
  • Next-of-kin or primary point-of-contact information
  • An indication of “No Known Drug Allergies (NKDA)”

While wearable devices may show limited information, smartphone applications and monitoring services often contain more detailed medical and surgical history along with comprehensive lists of active medications, said Marcum.

Who needs them and when?

“Everyone who has significant ongoing or past medical problems or takes any medications should have a list of allergies; medications, including over-the-counter drugs, supplements, herbs, and vitamins; and medical history in their wallet or purse,” Marcum said.

Individuals with allergies, medications, or medical conditions that can be immediately life threatening should have a mechanism to alert first responders and emergency medical services to their existence when they are incapacitated and unable to communicate, he said.

It’s especially important for bearers to wear or carry their medical alert devices when alone or with someone who is unaware of their medical history, medications, and allergies.

“So that they can effectively communicate them immediately in emergency circumstances,” he said. “But even then, unexpected situations can arise that might render your traveling partner incapacitated along with you.”

How do they help?

During emergency situations, Marcum said, diagnostic and therapeutic decisions must be made fast.

“When first responders are able to quickly narrow their focus to high-probability issues based on applicable individual medical conditions, interventions can be quickly employed, and outcomes optimized,” he said.

For example, “a simple bracelet with less than 80 characters can turn a very scary life-threatening situation with dozens of possible causes into a controlled and systematic response.”

These simple devices are easy to obtain from online retailers or company-specific websites.

“The ultimate benefit to medical alert devices is to improve the likelihood of a positive outcome during a medical event or intervention,” said Marcum.

And while “these important items do not require a prescription or physician order, your doctor would be happy to consult with you and help determine what information should go on a medical alert device,” said Marcum.

He acknowledged that many people may struggle with the decision to “openly ‘advertise’ personal vulnerability by wearing a medical alert bracelet.”

But “with the multitude of styles and options out there, and the realization that such a simple proclamation might be the only reason I survive an unexpected profound hypoglycemic event, I quickly realized it was a critical component of my overall health and personal safety,” he concluded.

August is Medical Alert Awareness Month.

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Last Updated: June 22, 2022

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