Smart watches are quickly becoming popular among users of all ages and abilities, and thanks to advances in health tracking and emergency response features, some consumers are choosing to use these small, wearable devices instead of a traditional medical alert help button.
The Apple Watch is one of the most advanced and best-known smart watches on the market, and the latest model, the Apple Watch Series 5, includes a number of functions that make it a viable alternative to a medical alert device for some users.
This guide provides an overview of what an Apple Watch is, its health monitoring and emergency response features, pricing and advice on who may want to consider using an Apple Watch as a wearable emergency call button.
What is an Apple Watch?
The Apple Watch is a small, wearable electronic device that’s known as a smart watch. It resembles a standard watch and comes complete with a watch-style wristband and an integrated clock, but that’s where the similarities between the Apple Watch and a regular analog or digital watch end. The latest version of the Apple Watch includes a GPS locator, devices that detect speed and motion, an integrated speaker and microphone, and a heart rate monitor.
Apple Watch Pricing
There are two versions of the Apple Watch available, GPS and GPS + Cellular, starting at $399, although retailers may sell it for less. The GPS model works with a Bluetooth connection provided through a compatible iPhone with an active data plan, while the GPS + Cellular model comes with its own cellular connection to enable SMS text messaging and phone calls without a cell phone nearby.
Users will also need to budget for an iPhone and a cellular service plan. In the U.S., the Apple Watch is supported on AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.
Best Emergency and Health Tracking Features of the Apple Watch
There are thousands of apps, or programs, available for the Apple Watch, and many of these apps are designed to help improve the health and safety of Apple Watch users. We’ve highlighted the most notable features related to medical monitoring and emergency response below:
Apple Watch Automatic Fall Detection
The Apple Watch includes an accelerometer to measure speed and a gyroscope to measure orientation. Apple has combined these two devices to create an automatic fall detection feature on the Apple Watch that’s similar to what is available through many medical alert companies.
When the fall detection feature is active, most hard falls will trigger an alarm on the watch that asks the user if they need help. If the user does not deactivate the alarm within one minute and the watch senses that the user is immobile, a 30-second countdown timer launches along with an audible alarm and tactile tapping through the watch. Once the countdown timer reaches zero, the Apple Watch will automatically call 911 and notify all the emergency contacts with the exact GPS location of the user.
All falls are automatically recorded in the Health app. As with all fall detection devices, the Apple Watch fall detection feature isn’t 100% accurate and the device cannot detect every single fall.
It’s important to note that the fall detection feature is off by default and must be manually turned on by the user to reduce false alarms among users who play contact sports. The only exception is for users age 65 and older who have entered their age during the setup of their Apple Watch Health app, which automatically enables fall detection for seniors.
Apple Watch Emergency Medical ID
The Apple Watch comes with a pre-installed Medical ID app where users can document essential medical information for use in an emergency. An icon for this app can be placed on the display so it’s easily accessible to first responders. Users are advised to enter detailed information about any health conditions, allergies and medications they take on the Medical ID app.
Apple Watch Heart Rate and ECG Monitor
One of the most innovative features on the Apple Watch is the built-in optical heart rate monitor. This feature uses tiny sensors called photodiodes paired with special LED lights on the back of the watch to detect the amount of blood flowing through the users’ wrist.
This data is processed through a complex algorithm to provide detailed information about the users’ current heart rate that’s comparable to what is revealed through a single-lead electrocardiogram (ECG). The Apple Health app records this data and documents it on a graph which lets the user know if their heart is beating in a uniform (sinus) rhythm, or if an irregular heart rate pattern known as atrial fibrillation is detected. The app also alerts users if their heart rate is unusually high or low relative to their activity level.
Apple Watch Emergency SOS
Apple Watch owners who find themselves in an emergency situation can activate a call to the local emergency services number (usually 9-1-1) by simply pressing and holding the side button on the watch for 3 seconds, then continuing to hold while a countdown timer alerts the user that an emergency call will be placed. This delay is designed to prevent accidental activation of the Emergency SOS feature, and users who are worried about pressing the button by accident can disable this feature through the settings menu on the watch.
Alternatively, users can hold the side button for 3 seconds then swipe the red SOS button on the watch face from left to right.
Siri Voice-Activated Features
Siri is Apple’s voice-activated assistant, and it gives Apple Watch users the ability to place phone calls, send text messages and perform a number of other tasks without ever touching the watch, which may be useful for some users with limited dexterity.
To activate Siri, users need to either raise their wrist and say “Hey Siri” or activate the Raise To Speak feature through the settings menu.
Can an Apple Watch Replace a Traditional Medical Alert Device?
Whether or not an Apple Watch can be used instead of a traditional medical alert device depends on a number of factors, such as the needs of the user, their level of experience with high-tech devices and if they need a monitored personal help button service.
Although the Apple Watch is designed to be user-friendly, intuitive and simple to navigate, the fact is that it is an exceptionally complex device that has little in common with the standard help buttons and emergency pendants offered by most medical alert companies.
Purpose-built medical alert help buttons are made to be either low-maintenance or completely maintenance-free and easy to use, even by those who may have physical and/or cognitive challenges. By comparison, the Apple Watch has a broad range of features that may be overwhelming to some users, making it ineffective as a medical alert device.
What Are the Pros and Cons of an Apple Watch as a Medical Alert Device?
While the Apple Watch is one of the most popular smartwatches on the market today, as with all medical alert devices it has its pros and cons.
Apple Watch Medical Alert Pros:
- Available in a wide range of band colors and styles
- Users can customize the display
- Integrated GPS location tracking
- Activity tracking can be customized to each user, including those who use mobility devices such as a wheelchair
- The cellular Apple Watch allows users to make and receive phone calls and texts without a phone nearby
- The ECG app allows users to generate an ECG that is comparable to a single-lead electrocardiogram
- The watch can automatically detect atrial fibrillation (irregular heart rhythm) and alert users when abnormal cardiac patterns are recorded
- Optional apps include glucose monitoring, meal tracking, medication reminders and activity tracking
Apple Watch Medical Alert Cons:
- The device requires a certain level of technical skill to set up and use
- The up-front cost is significantly higher than most medical alert systems
- The fall detection feature doesn’t work properly 100% of the time
- Users need to own a compatible Apple iPhone to program the Apple Watch
- Many functions on the non-cellular Apple Watch, including emergency calling, only work when a linked iPhone is nearby
- Fall detection automatically calls 911 when triggered, which may discourage some users from activating the feature
- The Apple Watch isn’t a monitored medical alert device
- Users must recharge the watch daily
Who Should Use an Apple Watch as an Emergency Help Button?
An Apple Watch may be a great option for tech-savvy users who are looking for a discrete device that looks nothing like a traditional medical alert help button. It offers an impressive array of features that may be valuable to those who want more than a typical medical alert system and who have the ability to program and manage the watch.
It’s also important for users to understand the potential limitations of the Apple Watch when compared to other medical alert devices, namely, the lack of access to a 24/7 emergency call center. Because the Apple Watch works in conjunction with a compatible iPhone, anyone considering buying an Apple Watch for use as a medical alert watch needs to either own a late-model iPhone or plan on purchasing one with their watch.