NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 12, 2005

In the flurry of calls for electronic medical records, a low-tech alternative is being overlooked: the medical warning tag. These tags, worn on a bracelet or necklace, alert emergency-room staff that the patient has a medical condition that could make routine care dangerous, such as a drug allergy, or that could explain the patient's symptoms.

Emergency physicians say that the decades-old medical-warning tag represents one of medicine's most underutilized tools:

  • The number of Americans afflicted with conditions that warrant such tags -- from epilepsy to diabetes to hemophilia -- reaches deep into the tens of millions.
  • Yet even the giant of the medical-warning tag industry, a California-based nonprofit called Medic Alert, has just four million patients participating world-wide.
  • The number of member patients -- they get not only bracelets but also an 800-number service that provides contacts and medical records to doctors in an emergency -- is lower today than a decade ago.

Emergency physicians say this is because many doctors -- with the exception of diabetes specialists -- neglect to recommend the tags, through oversight or perhaps out of a belief that wearing a tag is a personal rather than medical decision. In any case, many patients with potentially fatal drug allergies or other dangerous conditions have never been advised to wear a warning tag.

Medic Alert tags bear a medical insignia on the front and on the back a brief message, along with an 800-number from which emergency physicians can obtain more detailed medical information, including drug regimens, as well as phone numbers of family and primary-care physicians. Medic Alert bracelets and necklaces cost about $15, and the 24-hour information service costs $35 the first year, $20 after that.

Source: Kevin Helliker, "Low-Tech Lifesavers: Medical Bracelets Are An Underused but Crucial ER Tool," Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2005.

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