The 'no-brainer' way to save a life

Allan Kearns says his MedicAlert bracelet is a life saver.
Photo credit: MedicAlert Foundation

Imagine waking up in a foreign bedroom, with a complete stranger lying beside you, as children you don't know run in and out.

That's been the reality for 53-year-old Gisborne man Allan Kearns, who has a form of epilepsy which causes seizures in his sleep.

When he wakes, he has no memory of his own family.

"You think 'Oh my God, where am I? Who are all these people?" he says.

"You're trying to slowly crawl away from them. It's scary."

His wife and children know how to deal with the aftermath. But frighteningly, he's also been found alone and unconscious on a park bench.

Thankfully, his MedicAlert bracelet alerted the paramedics to his condition.

"I rely on it pretty heavily when I'm out and about," Kearns says.

Ninety thousand New Zealanders actively wear a MedicAlert identification for a range of serious conditions, giving vital information in a medical emergency if the patient is unable to speak themselves.

Now, the MedicAlert Foundation is calling for more support to reach others who need its services. A recent PwC report found 2 percent of Kiwis have the IDs, but 22 percent have at least one of the four main reasons to have one: allergy, heart disease, respiratory disease including asthma, and diabetes.

The Foundation's CEO Murray Lord says the service is saving lives.

"They talk about that golden hour - in some cases it's the golden few minutes," he says.

"If you can see someone has a problem, call 111 and can say 'by the way, there's a bracelet here that says 'diabetes',' then the people on the end of the phone are going to be able to help you address that then and there while emergency services are on their way."

But Lord says not everyone who should have a MedicAlert ID can afford the service, which costs $114 initially, then $54 a year for adults, and $35 for a child.

While Work and Income helps some users who qualify for a disability allowance, he says the threshold for that is low.

"Really, something as important as MedicAlert ought to be funded properly by the government so that people who need it can receive it and it isn't dependent on their capacity to pay."

The PwC report details the scheme's economic value, and untapped potential.

Currently, MedicAlert saves the healthcare system an estimated $18.1 million per year, through reduced harm, like avoiding allergic reactions, and more efficient treatment.

Allan Kearns says his MedicAlert bracelet is a life saver.
Photo credit: MedicAlert Foundation

Existing members benefit to the tune of $38 million, which includes the value of the seven avoided deaths each year.

But the benefits could be far greater, with the potential value of reduced harm reaching $102-$242 million a year.

For example, they believe up to 15,400 adverse drug events in one year could have been be prevented by people using MedicAlert.

"It's so simple, but it is so significant in what it achieves," Lord says.

"For the sake of putting a necklace on with a medical ID attached to it, it could save your life, or prevent serious harm that undermines your future quality of life. It just seems like a bit of a no brainer."

For Allan Kearns, it gives him peace of mind. Unfortunately, his MedicAlert ID doesn't just mention epilepsy.

He's also anaphylactic to Nitrolingual spray, which he was given for chest pain when he had a heart attack.

"I've been told I could die within 10 minutes if I have it again," he says.

He wants the public, paramedics and hospital staff to always remember to check for that little tag - which could save his life.

This article was created for MedicAlert Foundation.