Responders search for clues about patients' medical conditions, medications they're taking or allergies they have, says Matt Zavadsky, MedStar's director of operations. They rummage through purses and wallets for hints of their emergency contacts.
"We're basically in the dark when we get there," Zavadsky said.
To change that, MedStar is encouraging potential patients to register for the Invisible Bracelet, a program that lets emergency responders quickly view on laptops a person's medical history and notify relatives via e-mail, phone or text message that their loved one is being hospitalized.
For a $5 annual registration fee, patients go to www.invisiblebracelet.org and create profiles in the Invisible Bracelet medical registry. They can share, for example, whether they are diabetic or have a history of heart attacks and what medications they cannot tolerate.
MedStar signed up for access to the registry about a month ago.
"Our paramedic or EMT can immediately pull up the information on a computer and know everything a person wants us to know about them," Zavadsky said.
"If we have a patient unconscious in a restaurant, for example, we could see that they have a peanut allergy and ask the waiter real quick, 'What did this person have to eat?' It's information that is very helpful."
Some patients already wear small bracelets with medical conditions written on them, Zavadsky said. But that information is usually one word, such as diabetic.
The Invisible Bracelet lets patients share more detailed information. They can note that their diabetic condition is diet-controlled and that their normal blood sugar level is 180, he said.
The new system is also more discreet, he said. Some people don't like to wear the jewelrylike bracelets because they feel as if it advertises the fact that they have a medical condition, Zavadsky said. With the Invisible Bracelet, patients put stickers on their driver's licenses or markers on their key chains with a personal identification number.
Since MedStar rolled out the program, 2,500 to 3,000 people in the agency's service area have registered, Zavadsky said.
Natalie Brown, a spokeswoman for Tulsa-based Docvia Llc., which developed the system, said the Invisible Bracelet was first tested in Oklahoma in April 2009. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State universities use it for their students, faculty and staff. About 100,000 people have registered as of July, Brown said.
MedStar is the first Texas emergency medical responder to join the program, Brown said.
Patients can also enter names and contact information for people they want notified if they are hospitalized.
Right now, MedStar commonly gets phone calls from worried relatives asking which hospital their loved ones were taken to, Zavadsky said. But federal privacy laws often restrict MedStar officials from simply telling them.
"We don't know for sure that they are who they say they are," Zavadsky said. "But with this program, with the click of a mouse we contact people with text messages or e-mails or voice mails saying that we are taking someone to Harris [hospital] with chest pains. You don't have to jump through all the hoops."
The information in the registry is secure and complies with federal privacy laws, according to the company.
Helping the homeless
MedStar officials plan to approach area universities and colleges about using the system, Zavadsky said. It is also working with the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition to help homeless people register.
Poor general health makes homeless people particularly prone to medical emergencies. But responders rarely have any medical information about them, Zavadsky said. Even if homeless people are conscious, they are sometimes wary of talking to paramedics.
Cindy Crain, executive director of the coalition, said homeless people will get help registering at clinics starting July 23.
"The Invisible Bracelet program is ideal for persons experiencing homelessness," Crain said. "It will allow for accurate and accessible medical information to speed the delivery of healthcare services achieving better health outcomes."
ALEX BRANCH, 817-390-7689
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