Walt Mossberg

In a Medical Crisis, Service Helps Others to Help You

What if you were found unconscious or unable to clearly communicate, suffering from an injury or other medical crisis? It could take an emergency responder or a doctor precious time to figure out two key things: your medical profile and how to get in touch with a family member or friend.

Now, a small start-up company called EmergencyLink is trying to improve this situation with a free service that combines digital and physical aids. If you enroll, you can create a detailed profile, including your medical conditions, allergies, medications, insurance information and a list of emergency contacts who can provide more information. This profile is stored online and can be accessed, and updated, via a password-protected website and a companion smartphone app.

image

EmergencyLink iPhone app

In an emergency, the company’s call center can quickly provide an emergency responder with the key medical information you’ve entered online and place the responder in touch with the first of your emergency contacts it can reach.

To make this work, you receive—also free—a set of stickers, keychain tags, wallet cards and luggage tags, bearing the toll-free number of the service and your account number. It can even create a screensaver for your phone with these numbers. The emergency responder calls the phone number, gives the service the account number and gets access to the medical details and the contact.

To make sure you and your family members and friends, have all the information you need about each other, you can optionally share your information to each others’ accounts on EmergencyLink. You can enroll, or learn more, at emergencylink.com.

EmergencyLink isn’t the first or only product designed to aid people in emergencies. GreatCall sells an emergency-alert device backed by a phone service. And there are numerous sites and apps that allow you to store medical information. But EmergencyLink says its advantages are that it allows not just storing of data, but sharing of the data among members, plus a phone service to get the information out and alert contacts—all free of charge.

I’ve been testing EmergencyLink as best I could without actually falling victim to an emergency. I found that it works and I’d be willing to use it myself, if only to increase the odds of getting the best care as soon as possible. But, as with anything medical, I can’t guarantee that EmergencyLink would be a lifesaver. It has some downsides.

For instance, in my test, the phone process took about eight minutes before the faux responder—me—got the key information and was placed in touch with a contact, in this test case my wife, who was ready for the call. It could take longer if the first contacts listed can’t be reached. That’s a lot less time than it might take if the responder had no idea where to start, but it could be too long if lifesaving treatment was needed in less time.

Also, the system depends on the responder discovering the blue emergency card in your wallet or on your bag, the sticker you’ve placed on the back of your license, or the phone-screen saver. There is no guarantee that will happen, or will happen in time.

image

The Dashboard view of EmergencyLink shows how much information a person has stored with the service, including the number of emergency contacts and how many people are sharing the data.

Finally, this all depends on the efficiency and responsiveness of the very small team of phone operators the young company has on call 24/7. These operators work for a contractor in Wisconsin. In my test, the woman I reached seemed capable, and quickly accessed my information, but she was working from home on a Sunday. She made one error, cutting off the call briefly by hitting a wrong button, but this might have been because it was a test in which I was at one point using a phone also listed for my wife as a contact.

To ensure privacy, and weed out harassers, EmergencyLink doesn’t just give out medical information and contact information based on a single call.

First, it calls back the responder, to try to verify the person is for real. Then, it calls the member to be sure he or she isn’t answering his or her phone normally. Only then does the operator give the responder any medical information you’ve allowed it to disseminate.

Also, the service never gives the responder your contacts’ information. Instead, it calls the contact and puts the two in touch. The downside of all of this is that it adds time.

Still, for those concerned with covering all their bases, EmergencyLink may be a useful tool, especially because it’s free. The site and app—which runs on iPhones, Android phones and BlackBerrys—don’t contain ads. The company hopes one day to make money by offering users optional fee-based services from others.

In addition to aiming at medical emergencies, EmergencyLink hopes to help in missing persons’ cases, by allowing members to quickly generate reports on people whose information they share, and email these reports to authorities.

You can also use EmergencyLink to store a vast array of data, including legal and financial records, wills, advanced medical directives, passports and more. I was able to upload scans of my health-insurance card, front and back.

The company states, “We will not sell or rent your information to third-parties, for any purpose.”

People you list as contacts will be notified if you gave their email, and will be urged to join, though they needn’t do so. But, if you wish to share access to your data with them—a very powerful, useful feature—they must be members.

Overall, I thought EmegencyLink was a good idea done pretty well. It’s impossible to know how effective it will be, but, since it’s free, it’s worth a try for anyone who worries about getting quicker, better help in a medical crisis.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at walt.mossberg@wsj.com


Top Products in Two Decades of Tech Reviews

December 17, 2013 at 6:04 pm PT

Diabetes Data Beamed to Your Phone

December 10, 2013 at 6:16 pm PT

Two Houses, One Cable TV Bill

December 10, 2013 at 6:14 pm PT

Calling Overseas on Wi-Fi

December 03, 2013 at 6:18 pm PT

Dell Tablets at Bargain Prices

December 03, 2013 at 6:12 pm PT

Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

Walt Mossberg’s Product Guides

Desktop PC’s and Laptops

The Laptops to Buy


Digital Cameras

Digital Cameras Improve Zooms, HD Function