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Are You Prepared to Get Needed Care When You're Unconscious?

Are you diabetic? Allergic to certain drugs? Taking a medication that could react favorably with another medication? If so, how will the emergency medical technician (EMT) or emergency department personnel know about it if you're unconscious and no knowledgeable family member is present?

A booming business devoted to alerting emergency caregivers to such problems has arisen in recent years. The latest approach is to provide the customer with a wallet card telling emergency personnel to dial an 800 number or call collect. If they have access to a scanner connected to the company's computer, they can just swipe the card through it and the hospital will instantly have your medical history, insurance data, and check-in information.

Different companies offer this service at variable fees for individuals and families. However, the service is limited to providing the emergency caregiver with a faxed copy of the answers given by the customer to a list of perfunctory questions posed by an interviewer when you sign up for the service--information you could put on a wallet card yourself.

Some of these companies have already equipped many U.S. hospitals with scanners to read their wallet cards--but that won't help you much if you end up unconscious in a hospital (or worse yet, on the street) in, say, Bucharest, Romania. But what about the company that sells you a prepaid telephone calling card for $39.95 that will allow you to spend 45 minutes on the phone with the company from anywhere in the world and talk to a registered nurse about any medical problem, however severe it may be? (Or for $69.95 annually, they will keep your medical records on-line in their computer, so that anyone else can use your calling card to talk to them--and will even refer you to a local doctor who speaks English.)

The problem with all such cards is that EMTs are not trained to look through the wallets or purses of unconscious victims. They are, however, trained to look for bracelets or necklaces that provide emergency information--and for 42 years the not-for-profit Medic Alert Foundation has been engaged in providing these. For a first-year fee of $35 and an annual membership of $15 thereafter, Medic Alert provides members with a pendant or bracelet engraved on one side with the nearly universally recognized caduceus medical symbol and on the other with details like "Allergic to Penicillin" and "Diabetes, Insulin Dependent."

The jewelry is also engraved with a telephone number in California that can be called collect, 24 hours a day, from anywhere in the world, so that emergency personnel can get the full details of a patient's health and medical history. The system works well enough in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, but there are obvious problems when a Telugu-speaking doctor in rural India calls California (if he can at all). In that situation, the service instantly taps into an AT&T service called Language Line, which provides translation service in 140 languages.

Medic Alert is endorsed by more than 100 health-related organizations, ranging from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology to the American College of Emergency Physicians and the Epilepsy Foundation of America (phone number: 1-209-669-2403).

Or make this a do-it-yourself project. You can buy bracelets inscribed with the caduceus staff-and-serpent symbol, on the back of which any jewelry shop can engrave whatever medical information you think relevant--including a notation to look in your wallet or purse for more details. Then type up your health history on an ordinary piece of paper, use a copy machine to reduce print size if needed and copy it on a sheet of card stock, trim to wallet or purse size, and laminate it. And if you plan to spend an extended period in a foreign-language area, make up a bracelet and card in the local language.
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Publication:Medical Update
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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