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Since 1956, people with medical disorders have worn bracelets and necklaces to communicate their conditions to emergency healthcare providers in the event that they are unable to speak. Historically, medical alert bracelets have provided information about specific issues, such as diabetes, epilepsy, and drug allergies. Today, the conditions a tag might report are more wide-ranging. In an emergency, these medical identification tags can provide pertinent information to healthcare personnel and prevent significant medical errors in treatment.

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The First Medical Alert Bracelet

Dr. Marion Collins and his daughter, Linda, invented the medical alert bracelet following a medical emergency and a close call in 1953. At 14 years old, Linda experienced a severe cut, and her uncle rushed her to a nearby hospital. With her parents out of town, the medical staff was unaware of her allergy to the tetanus antitoxin. As per hospital protocol, the staff performed a skin test before injecting the full dose of tetanus. This small amount of tetanus caused Linda to go into anaphylactic shock. Dr. Collins and his daughter recognized that there should be some way to let healthcare personnel know about a patient’s medical condition if they were unable to do so. They designed a bracelet in 1956 and later established a foundation and a 24-hour emergency phone service for their members and first responders.

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Medical Alert Technology in the 1970s

Dr. Andrew Dibner, a psychologist, focused on issues of older individuals, especially those who live alone. He worried that they had no means of calling for help in case of a medical emergency or fall. He and his wife developed the Lifeline Systems, wearable pendants or bracelets with transmitters. An individual can push a button on the wearable device to alert a central monitoring system via a console linked to their home telephone and a speakerphone. This connected them with an operator, who could summon an ambulance, relative, or neighbor to assist them. Companies use similar technology today.

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Medical Conditions and Medical Alert Bracelets

Medical professionals say numerous conditions are appropriate inscriptions on medical alert jewelry or tags. Epilepsy, bleeding disorders, and rare blood types are important disclosures. Prosthetic heart valves, medical implants such as a defibrillator, solid organ transplants, dementia, and intellectual impairment are also essential. Many healthcare professionals suggest that individuals with an advanced directive or “do not resuscitate” order (DNR) engrave that information on the bracelet. They also suggest specific religious preferences, such as a refusal of blood products. It is also important to convey chronic kidney disease to emergency personnel, so they preserve the individual’s dialysis veins.

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Pharmaceutical and Substance Allergies

Listing allergies or hypersensitivity to specific substances like latex, medical dyes, or iodine provides pertinent information during an emergency medical situation. An individual who is taking steroids or insulin should consider noting this information on medical jewelry, as well. Doctors prescribe anticoagulants for a wide range of medical conditions, and age is not necessarily a factor. Offering that information on a medical bracelet is crucial. The FDA also suggests that people with serious food allergies note them on a medical alert bracelet.

pharmaceutical allergy latex fudfoto / Getty Images

Emergency Care and Unnecessary Information

Certain medical information, such as that that would not save an individual's life, does not need to be included on a medical alert bracelet. Knowing that a patient has heart disease or asthma will not aid first responders. Many people inscribe medical alert bracelets with “insulin-dependent diabetes,” but the disorder has become so common that that emergency responders check blood sugar levels on all unconscious patients.

diabetes insulin first responders Motortion / Getty Images

Non-Emergency Information

Some medical events that appear more serious than they are can be included on a bracelet to help prevent a costly trip to a hospital. Seizurs often appear to be life-threatening, but may not be serious and an event does not necessarily require hospitalization or trauma care. Emergency personnel will determine the person’s condition, but knowing that the individual has a seizure disorder is helpful. Those who have other conditions that cause seizures, such as a brain tumor, should note that information on the bracelet as well.

seizure disorder passersby Jan-Otto / Getty Images

The Pros of Medical Alert Bracelets

After more than four decades on the market, most people recognize a medical alert bracelet when they see one. The bracelets display well-known symbols like the red emergency medical symbol, the staff of Asclepius, the Caduceus — a symbol of medicine — or the six-pointed Star of Life, seen on ambulances and other emergency vehicles. The company engraves the individual’s pertinent medical information directly on the bracelet. It conveys immediate, vital details to trauma health care professionals and ambulance personnel in life-threatening situations or when the individual is unconscious.

asclepius caduceus medicine symbol ambulance Marje / Getty Images

The Cons of Medical Alert Bracelets

Medical communities say that while there are important reasons to wear a medical alert bracelet, there are drawbacks as well. The information the seller engraves on the bracelet comes from the individual when they purchase it, and in some cases, that information stems from a misunderstanding of their diagnosis. For example, many people believe they have an allergy to a pharmaceutical, such as penicillin, when, in fact, they have never experienced a documentable drug reaction. In other cases, the information may be out-of-date or inaccurate. Some medical bracelet companies require monthly monitoring fees, which vary greatly. Others require activation fees and minimum commitment contracts.

drug reaction medical alert bracelet GrabillCreative / Getty Images

New Technology, Updated Benefits

Medical alert bracelets are not the only type of technology available for those seeking ways to identify their medical conditions and allergies. Today, systems offer extended capabilities, including providing real-time health data. Until recently, companies offered only home-use monitored medical alert systems. Several devices now provide mobile options that travel with the individual. Some companies offer wearable fall detection options for an added fee. A device senses a fall and automatically contacts a dispatch center. Additionally, many cell phones have an emergency option on the lock screen that allows anyone to access the individual's medical information and emergency contact.

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Do Medical Alert Bracelets Save Lives?

Studies show that the majority of emergency team members routinely check medical alert bracelets before starting treatment. If an individual wears a medical bracelet and experiences an issue in public that prohibits them from speaking, passersby know to call emergency services. There is no doubt that the bracelets have saved lives, but there is little research to provide statistics. Some members of the medical community say that individuals should verify their medical status with a doctor before deciding what to engrave on an alert bracelet. They should also update the information as necessary. This ensures that emergency personnel uses the correct treatment methods for the condition and decreases the possibility of treatment errors.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.