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GPS Tracking for Medical Purposes

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 1/25/2010

GPS tracking technology has been applied to many of today's problems in innovative fashions, including as an aid to health services. This article outlines some of the advantages of GPS tracking devices for medical purposes, particularly Alzheimer's patients and for emergency alert systems.

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    Emergency Alert Systems

    The most critical application of GPS technology in health services is in emergency alert systems. For situations where you're alone, disabled or otherwise can't get to a phone in time to call for help, these are potentially powerful lifesaving devices.

    These systems generally consist of a few parts. There's the main component which you wear, such as a wristwatch or a necklace, or a specially designed “safety phone." This is the piece that does the GPS tracking, and that you activate to call for help. Some systems also have features such as a charge station or a signal relay station. Features of individual systems may vary, but may include anything from emailing out your position at the time of the emergency to loved ones, calling your family members, activation upon a lack of heartbeat, fall detectors, geofencing, and others.

    These systems do not rely exclusively on GPS tracking capabilities, also making use of local cell networks for even more accurate triangulation of the signal where possible. As you might guess, most of these systems require a subscription of some sort, as well as a one-time hardware purchase.

    For an excellent overview of one such set up, the MobileHelp medical alert system, check out this CNET article.

    For other examples of medical alert systems, check out companies such as Brick House Alert, 911 Anywhere, or LifeWatch.

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    Medical Tracking Systems

    However, GPS tracking may also serve a more direct medical purpose: tracking those patients who may wander, and be unable to take care of themselves. This particularly includes patients with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. These patients may get themselves hopelessly lost and unable to navigate their way back to safety, sometimes not even remembering their own name to give to the proper authorities.

    This is where GPS tracking can prove to be powerfully important. Having the ability to track such patients in real time could prevent many a death that could have easily been prevented if only someone could have located the patient earlier.

    While one may also use the medical alert systems previously outlined, many configurations require that the user actively press the button. A specific medical tracking system could be used along with a geofencing feature to alert others only when the patient moves out of their home area, or simply provide tracking features 24/7.

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    Disadvantages of Medical Tracking Systems

    Of course, there are a few fears associated with such tracking. One of the biggest concerns is whether those suffering from dementia can really give consent to such an invasion of privacy.

    There's a certain amount of fear that others suffering from mental disorders may also be involuntarily subjected to GPS tracking, such as those suffering from schizophrenia, PTSD, bipolar, and others. While medical GPS tracking is still only mostly applied to extreme cases of dementia, the thought that patients who may in fact be able to give informed consent may have this forced upon them is somewhat unsettling. However, no cases of abuse of these systems have been noted yet, or for that matter, application of the technology to anyone other than the least lucid, so this does not appear to be an issue yet.

    People may not be particularly inclined to take this technology everywhere—a pendent or a watch is easy to forget to put on in the morning, which is obviously an issue with patients with dementia who may not even understand why they ought to have the device with them. They don't tend to be particularly aesthetic, which also offers some discouragement towards daily use.

    There is also a fear that caregivers may become too dependent on these sorts of technology, substituting human care and compassion with a tracking device. Again, however, this has not appeared to be an issue yet. This is a young technology whose use is not widespread, and so issues have not completely distilled themselves out yet—nor is the technology entirely perfected. Only time can tell where this technology will go in our daily lives.

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    For more on GPS technology and health care, check out this Bright Hub article.