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A visit to Philips -- the call is a communication lifeline

I was fortunate to have an experience this week listening on calls when the Philips Lifeline pendant was activated. The calls have stayed with me -- and probably will continue to be on my mind for a long time.  Philips executives Deb Citrin (Philips Healthcare), Sharon Thompson (Philips Medication Compliance, part of Lifeline), and Mark Ruthorford, Director of Marketing for Philips Lifeline, hosted an informative 3-hour visit to Philips' location in Framingham, MA where the call centers are located.  We toured both call centers -- and I learned about the infrastructure behind the calls -- more than 8 million per year.

Philips execs told me that they have approximately 650,000 call center subscribers through 3000 partner programs -- like hospitals, Red Cross, VNA, or home care agencies -- that represent the 8 million calls received per year. (This doesn't count use of the unit through other call handling done by long-term care providers). Ironically, only 3% of the calls received are actual 'I've fallen and I can't get up" emergencies. The vast majority are 'test' calls to verify that the base unit and button device are working properly -- and many of those 'test' calls are just to make contact with a human being.

That's right. The average age of a Lifeline subscriber is 82, a woman living alone. The most likely reason she has the button is from a referral -- a discharge planner from a hospital or rehab facility, a geriatric care manager, a social worker -- or even an adult day center, funeral home, or estate planning provider. Typically an incident or circumstance triggers the need for the service -- not a personal decision in which an elderly person admits she is frail and needs it.

So I listened to calls picked up by Frank, a long-time Lifeline employee who has heard it all over his 11 years. He identifies the Lifeline service and then slowly and clearly asks "Are you all right?". He's heard the silence of someone crawling on the floor to reset the base unit: "I'm crawling as fast as I can" or "It's warm here in Wisconsin today." He knows to probe if the cleaning person answers, so that he can hear the voice of the subscriber. He knows that 'warm in Wisconsin' could mean the air conditioning has failed and help is needed. He knows when the answer is garbled that he has to restate the question to make sure they've heard and are really okay. And he ends the call with "Are you sure that you don't need anything else today?" I got the sense that Frank loves his job and knows that it matters.

Philips Healthcare is a business -- an $11 billion one with a CEO who sees the market opportunity in aging. They are in multiple home health-related categories now, many from acquisition -- such as the Medication Dispensing service, home defibrillator, telehealth monitoring, and home testing devices and markets. The execs I spoke with see the target market as frail elderly and/or those suffering from chronic disease. The walls of the office buildings are filled with enlarged photographs of seniors -- mostly women -- with their pendants around their neck, sporting big smiles for the camera. 

Alone and in your 80's with an emergency response device as a link to the outside.  No wonder baby boomer women are so right to think ahead about shared housing to make them feel safe in their later years. Though I'm not sure if that will be an alternative to a response center staffed with guys like Frank.



Listening to calls being received and dealt with at a call centre is indeed a moving experience that deepens anyone's understanding of the need for such services.

What I wanted to pick up on though, was the statistic in the item that 3% of 8 million calls are actual 'I've fallen and I can't get up" emergencies. That's almost a quarter of a million people helped when they need it most. That's great!

What bothers me, though, are the estimates that at least 50% of people who have pendant-type alarms do not have them within reach at times when they would need them. That means we can probably add to that statistic another quarter of a million people who were in trouble because they could not call for help. It really drives home the point that there is an urgent need to put in place (as standard) telecare systems that do not depend on the active participation of the person to trigger an alert.

Telecare Aware News Service

Lifeline's major issue, which I cannot believe the writer didn't comment on, is the simple fact is they have nearly 700,000 subscribers and not nearly enough people to answer their calls.
Quite frequently, I saw the waiting time for a call to be answered over 1 minute. Simply, you cannot have 100 people answering the calls of so many people. Over one minute is completely unacceptable. A majority of the issue is the system forces the user to test once a month, which with the technology available today is not needed. Other systems do self tests for connectivity to the unit, pendant battery check and speaker functionality. Plus, Lifeline systems cannot handle DSL or VOIP. Lifeline units are simply way out of date.

And if their system crashes (and it does) they have no backup location or systems in place. Their software is antiquated, and if a major disaster strikes a certain portion of the country their call center will be swamped with low battery signals from units that lost power.

Philips purchased their largest US competitor in 2007, and took on another 110,000 subscribers without adding any additional workforce or expanding their current call centers (i.e. two in the same location).
Originally, they told IMD2 users they were not going to support the product, however now it seems they changed their tune. Again, Lifeline is far behind the technological curve, and in the end, will lose.

I offered a personal emergency response system ("PERS") to an older friend on Maui recently who refused it because PERS is for "old weak people".

Denial of aging and death is universal. Many product names and/or descriptions turn off prospective users. Hence, the glacial market acceptance of many "aging in place" technologies.

Concept-testing of The Silver Surfers Club membership idea confirmed just how important "words" and "senior-semantics" are in new product/service adoption by older adults.

We're exploring a possible "suite of" products which will help our members remain safely, comfortably and independently at home. We'll be attempting to "describe" our membership "benefits" using more appealing semantics than "a personal emergency response system". Brrrr!

As an employee, I have found that some of the most moving encounters with subscribers has been when they press their button "just to make contact with a human being." Some subscribers check in regularly and say, "I just wanted you all to know I'm still here..."
One subscriber used to tell us the weather, and another used to signal in and play us music.

FACT: There doesn't exist a senior that needs help. Didn't you know? Ask any senior!
I have an 81 year old mother-in-law. I've explained about PERS technology and her response is "I'm not ready for that - yet."

Response systems need to be passive. "It's too much trouble" to operate one. One commenter here noted that over half of folks with pendants do not wear them. That is so true. I have heard countless accounts of seniors lying in wait of help because of that. More alarming are those who have them on and do not use them! Lastly, how about those who have them, WOULD use them but cannot because they are on top of it or unconscious? What good is that button and the box?

What exists in the marketplace NOW is technology which can provide passive protection and alerts. Fall detection, lack of motion (when there should be some) and a variety of situations which can flag a problem or potential problem and gets help to the individual quickly.

You can wait for the big companies to come up with those solutions or work with the smaller focused companies that make the lives of their seniors and caregivers more safe and effective to manage with thoughtful solutions (not gadgets) that are available NOW.

For those who may have seen the McKnight's press release on choking risk from pendants, here is the Sept 11 press release on this topic from Philips.

Philips Lifeline issues Safety notice to Subscribers

The net of the advice is to contact service providers.


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