Will the emergency button ever change?

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Lola Rain
Lola Rain

With the growing popularity of activity bands and smart watches, such as the Apple Watch, we are seeing consumers embrace wearable devices like they are Rolex knock-offs purchased for a fraction of the price. Wearables range from $3.50 for just the silicone bracelet to more than $1,200 for an 18-karat gold encased computer that fits on your wrist. The increase in adoption of wearable devices makes me wonder: 

  1. When will the help button become smaller and more attractive like a designer fitness band?
  2. Will more seniors wear it if it looks cool?

I see women who swap out the drab, break away cord for a chain necklace that makes the pendant look even more ridiculous around their neck. Some women hide the button in their bras. Residents and family tell stories of not having it on when the fall occurred, thus leaving the person on the floor to suffer for hours. Yet, I rarely hear practical solutions to increase compliance of wearing the pendant. It seems to me if iPhone covers can come in hundreds of styles, there could be at least a dozen options to customize help buttons so users would enjoy wearing it.

The shift in consumer demand already impacts new products coming on the market. The new Lively smart watch looks like the Pebble or Samsung Gear. Does this mean activity monitoring companies will change the landscape for the eCall and Personal Emergency Response System (PERS) industry? I asked several experts to discuss challenges, product design, and pendant usage for LTC residents and in-home care recipients.

Battery life and regulatory challenges

Deb Citrin, Senior Director of Strategy and Business Development for Philips Home Monitoring Phillips Healthcare, makes a lot of sense when she explains, “Battery life is one of the most important elements of our wearable devices.” The average user, an 82 years old woman, will have difficulties changing a battery or putting it on a charging station. If the 5-year battery doesn't become smaller, the button cannot shrink in size. Does the button have to shrink to make it more attractive? What about skins to place over the button to change its appearance?

Button interference and radio frequency are concerns when looking at design explains Steve Elder, Senior Marketing Manager with Stanley Healthcare. “That's why you can't just take a technology that is consumer and bring it in to a healthcare environment,” he says. Stanley offers skins for the pediatric alert but not the senior emergency button. Why are products made for kids always so much cuter than the adults counter parts?

After working in an FDA-regulated environment, I have seen the limitations first hand. Change is hard to embrace for an industry that is a slave to its regulations. This is one reason why the button design hasn't changed in over 30 years. But more obvious is that manufacturers don't see a benefit to making the product more attractive.

Design and affordability

As we see more fitness bands with sleek designs, like the $38 FitBit silicon printed bracelet by designer Tory Burch, the question is when will medical alert companies partner with designers who can contribute fashion to this aged product?

Heidi Nestor, assistant vice president of marketing for Life Alert seems adamant that “there will not be a designer button like Fitbit's new form factors by Tory Burch” because of affordability issues. She explains “no matter how attractive the button is, there is a chance that it will not match all the customer's outfits so they would not wear it if it clashed, therefore, not wearing the emergency button puts their life in jeopardy.”

It may be Life Alert's strategy to not divert from the same product offering regardless of changes in consumer behavior, but it's not feasible to think they are safe from competition stealing market share. In the recent Lively announcement, Iggy Fanlo, co-founder and CEO of Lively says PERS are “worthless if people aren't wearing them.” He explains, “We're on a mission to offer an emergency response product that encourages daily use and valuable features that don't compromise older adult's style or dignity.” The initial cost for the stylist smart watch is $49.95 with a monthly service fee of $34.95 (compared to $29.95 per month for Life Alert).

One company to take a unique approach to increase compliance of users wearing the buttons is Confidence Covers. After years of frustration within the PERS industry, Lisa West, founder and president, developed an inexpensive way to bring a designer look to any button. West says, “I wanted to transform it, make it look like jewelry or a fashionable accessory. About 70% [of users] are female, therefore designs are female oriented.” Confidence Covers come in dozens of colors and patterns to fit any pendant for just $12.95.

Back to the future

When asked why it takes a crisis, like a fall, before older adults will wear their medical alert button, Nestor says, “The senior sees it as a sign of discrepancy and weakness.” She explains, “People don't take action until a crisis occurs because a medical alert device is not something that is fun and sexy.  It's like insurance, which no one wants to pay for until either they're in a car accident or their house burns down.” Life Alert has spent millions over the decades educating their audience using scary scenarios such as the most recent I've Fallen and Can't Get Up commercial.

No company has attempted to make medical alerts fun and sexy, even though the entire nation seems to have had fun with the original 1989 I've Fallen and Can't Get Up commercial. In fact, kids on Vine are obsessed with remaking this commercial. It is not just a pop culture catch phrase anymore, it is a full on meme. Come on help button manufactures, do something cool before it's too late and your industry is eaten up by the Silicon Valley giants. Hire young talent to take us in to the next generation by designing the best looking device since Star Trek's Communicator badge (which happens to have an emergency beacon inside the tiny, no battery needed device). Everything starts off fiction before it becomes reality. Get to the drawing board and design something amazing that every long-term care professional can be proud of. 

Lola Rain is the director of social media at Eskaton.

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