In online heart disease community forums out there, it’s not uncommon for this discussion question to pop up:
“Should I be wearing some type of medical I.D. since my cardiac diagnosis?”
The answer, of course, is: YES! – unless for some insane reason you don’t want emergency responders to know about your pre-existing condition or how to contact your next of kin during a medical crisis.
Some women insist, however, on excuses like this:
“But I already carry a neatly typed list of all my medications, my doctor’s phone number, my blood type, my hamster allergy, and my hospital Jell-O flavour preference inside my purse!”
Trust me (as I like to tell such I.D.-averse women): no paramedic or Emergency Department staffer is going to start rummaging into the bowels of that hockey bag-sized purse of yours when they’re otherwise madly occupied trying to, oh, let’s say . . . save your life.
Chances are, however, that the first person to come across you if you’re alone and in medical distress won’t be a professional first responder, but a passing stranger.
What they will look for first is either a special I.D. wrist bracelet or dog tag necklace that can speak for you if you are no longer able to speak for yourself.
I asked Tom Bouthillet for his opinion on this. Tom’s a former fire captain/paramedic in South Carolina. He told me:
” Yes, we absolutely look for medical alert tags, particularly when we have a patient who is out in public by themselves and unconscious.
“If you have a patient who was operating a motor vehicle, for example, and has hit a tree, unconsciousness is highly suggestive of a head injury, so a medical alert tag might let us know that the patient is a diabetic who is actually suffering insulin shock.
“My stepdaughter has a history of brain tumors and seizures. Her medical alert tags let any physicians know that hemianopsia (decreased vision or blindness in half the visual field of one or both eyes) is a normal finding for her. This was especially important when she was a child and unable to explain her medical history.
“Critical drug allergies are also very important. We wouldn’t want to inadvertently cause harm to a patient.”
A few years ago, The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting piece called The Jewelry Prescription.
Dr. Alfred Sacchetti, a member of the American College of Emergency Physicians, told the Journal that he often encounters patients in the E.R. with complex medical conditions who say they were never told by their physicians that they should wear a medical I.D. bracelet. He warns:
“Anyone with a medical condition that would not be obvious to medics or doctors if they were unable to communicate should consider some form of medical identification program.”
Like Bouthillet’s stepdaughter, Dr. Sacchetti’s own daughter wears a MedicAlert bracelet that helps inform first responders what her medical issue is NOT.
Her “Heart Disease” bracelet contains important information that, in the event of an emergency, lets first responders know instantly that her heart rate, which might not sound normal, is actually normal for her.
In fact, there is a growing interest in I.D. bracelets that simply say “No known medical conditions or allergies” so that medical treatment won’t be delayed in an emergency.
Tom Bouthillet describes another useful patient information initiative that his own first responders implemented. It’s called the “File of Life” program. It’s particularly important for seniors, he says, who often don’t remember their entire medical history or the names of their medications.
“We created small magnetic folders that hang on the refrigerator that contain the patient’s name, date of birth, social security number, medical history, allergies, medications, and emergency contact info. A sticker on the front door lets us know to check the refrigerator door. The program has been very successful.”
Keep in mind again that the first to come to your aid during a health crisis may not be medical personnel at all, but a passerby out on the street who can relay the information on your I.D. tag directly to the 911 dispatcher.
The Wall Street Journal interview included this wise additional tip from an E.R. physician:
“I ask patients to enter their medical information including medications and allergies in the “I” section of their phone’s address book (for ICE: “In Case of Emergency”). This is well-known to paramedics. If you can, also enter your medical conditions, closest family member to call, and doctors’ names. I have had this help more than once.”
What are the basics that should be immediately visible to responders?
Coronary artery disease patients who are still taking anti-platelet medications like Plavix, Brilinta or Effient after having had stents implanted must carry a clear warning like: “Do Not Stop _____” (insert name of your anti-platelet meds)
If possible, your medical I.D. tag should also be engraved with your name, your hometown (in case you are traveling when that fateful collapse strikes you), your date of birth, your major medical condition or any serious allergy, and current contact information to reach your next of kin.
Most medical I.D. companies also offer, for a nominal annual fee, the option of including a chip, a link to a secure website, a text message or toll-free phone number to retrieve the full medical or prescription drug history of any patient who is unconscious or otherwise unable to talk about their condition.
Some companies, like American Medical ID, offer a flash drive in a dog tag-style pendant that can be engraved with basic medical information and also loaded with all of the patient’s medical records. IMPORTANTUPDATE: Since this blog post was first published, I’ve had feedback from paramedics and ER staff who warn that because of computer security concerns, a growing number of facilities will NOT allow staff to insert a patient’s USB flash drive into hospital/ambulance computers.
For those who can’t or don’t like wearing metal bracelets or necklaces, consider the options offered by Road ID. This father-son business started in 1999 while Edward Wimmer (the son) was training for his first marathon. One day, he went out for his regular run carrying no personal identification when he experienced a frightening near-collision with “a black King-Kong-sized pickup truck.”
(This is, sadly, very common in the running community; when I was a distance runner, like Edward, I would often head out the door for my training runs carrying only my house key tucked into the pocket of my shorts. NOTE: Very bad idea!)
Together, Edward and his father, Mike Wimmer, started Road ID*, which produces affordable, comfortable, latex-free silicone medical I.D. bracelets with engraved metal tags (I own these in several interchangeable band colours!) as well as reflective nylon wrist, shoe or ankle tags and other practical waterproof safety gear.
A longtime nurse in Emergency told me that staff there do a quick head to toe scan of unconscious patients for medical I.D: wrists, neck, ankles and shoes (shoe tags are common among kids, especially young ones) and that no particular location on the body is more common than another. But she added:
” Please, please, PLEASE get something that is clearly a medical alert tag. Small bracelet charms that are among other charms are very easy to overlook.”
Remember that, ultimately, what your identification looks like may be less important than the fact that crucial information about you is readily available to first responders in case of emergency.
One of the best reasons for wearing a visible piece of medical identification – other than optimizing the speed at which emergency personnel can decide what to do with you – may well be your own family.
As one woman newly converted to the joys of wearing medical I.D. 24/7 explained:
“The main advantage is the piece of mind it gives my husband and family.”
Still not convinced to wear clearly visible medical identification on your body at all times?
Consider Road ID’s Edward Wimmer’s observations after his near run-in with that truck:
“What if that truck had hit me? I would have been rushed to the local hospital as ‘John Doe.’ Without proper I.D., family members and friends could NOT be contacted.
“Likewise, my medical records could NOT be accessed at the hospital. How long would I lay there unidentified? This freaked me out!”
* NOTE: Mentioning Road ID by name does not constitute a personal product endorsement
Q: Are you wearing your medical I.D. 24/7? If not, why not?.
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about practical steps new heart patients must take in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease . You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).