High-tech ID promoted as key to care Illnesses: Working like a credit card, new device has your medical history encoded in a magnetic strip. But there's some concern about how quickly it can be accessed.

March 23, 1997|By Ulla Karki | Ulla Karki,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Imagine being involved in a traffic accident in a foreign country. People gathering around you speak a language you don't understand, and you need to explain what's wrong. A small gadget can save the situation.

Body-worn emblems, such as bracelets or necklaces with medical information, have saved many lives. In emergency situations, paramedics and other emergency personnel are trained to look for a body-worn ID to identify people with conditions that could complicate treatment, such as allergies or diabetes.

But now a new crop of wallet cards have come on the market, with vendors claiming a level of protection that equals or surpasses that of the body-worn standard, such as a Medic-Alert bracelet. New high-tech medical ID cards are marketed to seniors, travelers, active and at-risk groups. Some of the more advanced cards work like credit cards. When the magnetic strip is swiped, medical information is transferred and printed out, much like a credit-card receipt.

Emergency management officials and physicians, however, say card-based ID systems aren't likely to help if you have a medical condition that must be quickly identified in an emergency. That's because people don't always carry wallets or purses. And even when they do, those items often fail to follow accident victims to emergency rooms and hospitals.

An even bigger reason for the probable failure of wallet-card systems is that paramedics are generally discouraged from searching wallets. They are trained to respond first to the medical emergency at hand, not to waste time looking for ID. Also, because of some concerns about accusations of theft, most states require either another member of the medical team or a police officer to be present if emergency medical technicians search a wallet.

"In Baltimore, only police officers have the authority to search wallets or pockets. Paramedics don't do that, so it is very unlikely that a card would be found in an emergency," says Charles Cheelsman, paramedic administrator at the Baltimore Fire Department.

Another problem with card systems is that some rely on 800 phone numbers to direct emergency responders to their telephone hot lines. Hot lines dispense computerized information as a supplement to what is written on the cards, because in many cases, people have conditions that are too numerous or too complex to be contained in the space of a card. The problem is that no single 800 number works worldwide. According to AT&T, no 800 service to the United States presently exists in most of Latin America, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The same holds true for all of Mexico, Canada, Korea, China, Belgium, India and Japan. Only call-collect phone numbers are reachable from anywhere in the world.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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