In iOS 8, Medical ID could be a life-saver

The Medical ID record in the new Health app in Apple's iOS 8 hasn't gotten a lot of attention. But it should, says columnist Ryan Faas.

Of all the new features in iOS 8, one hasn't gotten a lot of attention -- and it's the one feature that all iOS 8 users should at least consider.

I'm talking about the Medical ID record in the new Health app. Even if you aren't tracking fitness, diet or sleep -- and fortunate enough not to be managing or monitoring a chronic condition like diabetes, COPD or heart disease -- this is one aspect of the health app worth understanding. Although all other HealthKit-related functions are on hold for now, Medical ID is fully baked and ready to use.

The Medical ID pane of the Health app is a pretty generic medical information and history form. It contains much of the data that you'd see requested on a form when you visit a new doctor or an urgent care center -- birthdate, existing medical conditions, notes about those conditions or your medical history, allergies (to drugs, foods and environmental factors), medications you're taking, emergency contact (including relationship to you), blood type, whether you're an organ donor and your height and weight. The app automatically pulls your name and photo from the iOS Contacts app.

To add to or edit that information, launch the Health app, tap on the Medical ID icon (lower right part of the screen), and then click the Edit button at the top. For the most part, all you'll see are text fields where you can type in the appropriate information. The exceptions are the items at the bottom of the pane for adding one or more emergency contacts, which brings up your contact list and allows you to select from a list of predefined relationships and the fields for blood type, organ donor, weight and height -- all of which provide scroll lists of possible entries.

Having that information readily available when you need to provide it during an appointment or treatment is certainly a time-saver, and it ensures that you include everything that's relevant. That isn't where the real value of this feature lies, however.

The real power and value is the option at the top of the pane labeled Emergency Access, which sports a switch to allow access to the Medical ID panel from the lock screen of your iPhone. This means that in an emergency when you're unconscious or otherwise unable to speak or unlock your phone, an EMT, some other first responder or an emergency room staff person will be able to access the information. The same is true for friends, family members or co-workers who may come to your assistance.

They can do so by using the Swipe To Unlock Gesture and tapping the emergency button instead of entering a passcode. Traditionally, this has only allowed someone to call 911 (or the local emergency services number in another country). If you allow lock screen access to the Medical ID panel, however, there will be a Medical ID button to the lower left of the keypad. Tapping that button calls up a non-editable version of the Medical ID panel. In addition to viewing this information, the emergency provider -- or whoever is accessing the information -- can also dial your emergency contact(s) simply by tapping on them.

This is a great resource for emergency workers and first responders, particularly if you have serious or chronic medical conditions that could cause a collapse (hypoglycemia if you're diabetic, for example) or that could affect diagnosis and treatment. It's also a critical source of information on allergies you may have -- particularly allergies to medications or any allergy that can be severe or life-threatening -- because it increases the chances that your condition will be diagnosed appropriately and that treatment (like a dose of epinephrine for severe anaphylaxis) will be provided quickly.

Equally important can be information about medicine you're taking that may cause side effects or interact adversely with other medications an emergency physician might use to treat you.

The medical notes section can be used to keep a record of a range of important details, including recent surgeries or other medical interventions, implanted medical devices and previous hospitalizations. Notes can even be used to indicate the existence of advance directives like a do-not-resuscitate order, a living will or a healthcare proxy. If you observe a particular religion, you could even put in a request for an appropriate member of the clergy to be called if you're critically ill or injured.

You can include your doctor(s) as emergency contacts, something that's helpful in general, but particularly important if you are seeing a specialist for a serious medical condition such as cancer, because emergency personnel may need additional information from that specialist.

Even if you don't have any serious medical conditions, using this feature to list your name and your emergency contacts can still be worth the effort. After all, healthy people get into accidents and experience unexpected medical emergencies all the time. This option can also be a useful tool for parents to ensure that they are contacted right away if something happens to one of their children.

There is, of course, a caveat: Allowing lock screen access to the Medical ID panel could be a privacy concern. After all, anyone who has access to your iPhone can access this information -- even people who aren't medical professionals, emergency personnel or close friends or relatives. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that someone must have physical access to your phone to look at the information -- and if your phone is lost or stolen, the possibility that a stranger may be reading about your medical history isn't likely to be your biggest concern. Locating the device or wiping it using Find My iPhone would be your top priority.

If you have serious health issues or allergies, it's a no-brainer that making this information easily available is worth the minimal privacy risk. If that's not the case, you can limit the information that you present and disable access from the lock screen. (If privacy is a concern, you should know that Apple separates your Medical ID information from other Health app data and doesn't allow it to be shared with other apps that access HealthKit.) Or you can decide not to use it at all.

In the end, it's your private medical information and you have control of how to use it -- or not -- on your iPhone.

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