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Find Out How Your Smartphone Can Help Save Your Life

Let first responders see medical information, emergency contacts without knowing your code

spinner image an injured hiker holds a smartphone which says help on it
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Predicting if or when you might have an accident or cope with a medical emergency is impossible, even if you practice a healthy lifestyle and follow your doctor’s advice.

But you can take steps to improve your chances of surviving. One way is to prepare your smartphone for the unexpected.

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Obviously, having a phone always with you might save your life, if only because you may be able to use it to call 911 or summon other help. But what happens if you’re incapacitated or can’t speak when a first responder arrives? How will the person treating you find out about the medicines you take, serious allergies you might have, or even your blood type?

Start by setting up your medical ID

A medical ID lets first responders access your critical health information from the lock screen of your device without knowing the passcode. It lists important people to contact during an emergency, informs them of your medications and notes other vital information that may affect your treatment.

On iPhone. Launch the Health app — the icon has a small red heart ❤️ on a white background — and tap your profile picture or initials in the upper right corner of the screen. Next, tap Medical ID, and enter your date of birth, medical conditions, allergies and reactions, medications, blood type, and even the primary language you speak. Were the worst to happen, you can also indicate your willingness to be an organ donor.

Next, scroll to Emergency Contacts and tap the circled + button to add the people who ought to be contacted should something happen to you — presumably your doctors and spouse, but also your siblings or children.

You can always make changes later by tapping Edit at the upper right corner of this Medical ID screen.

Now you must make sure first responders can view the list. Scroll down to the Show When Locked switch and if not already enabled, tap the switch so that green, instead of gray, is showing.

A first responder, or anyone else, can see your Medical ID from the lock screen by swiping up and tapping Emergency at the lower left corner of the next screen, then tapping *Medical ID in the lower left corner of the resulting screen.

Worried about privacy? Keeping your data private and making it available to people trying to save your life is a fine balance. While Apple encrypts all other health and fitness data when your phone is locked, the Medical ID information is an exception for obvious reasons.

If you enable the Share During Emergency Call switch, your Medical ID will be shared automatically with emergency services if you call or text them. This feature works now only in supported locations in the United States, according to Apple. Your location will be sent to Apple to forward to emergency services, but Apple says it cannot read your Medical ID information.

Keep in mind: Apple added a medications logging feature in the Health app as part of its iOS 16 software update that came out in the fall of 2022, but the feature is separate from the Medical ID. It means you’ll still have to enter medications in the Medical ID manually.

On Android. Not all Android models are the same, but if you have a handset with the Android 12 or the Android 13 operating system you can similarly list your medical history, blood type, emergency contacts and select Emergency SOS settings.

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On Google’s own Pixels, start by tapping the gear icon for the device Settings and scroll down to the Safety & emergency section. Tap Medical information and choose whether to continue with your Google Account name, or to proceed without an account. Either way you’ll initially be asked to add your emergency contacts, by tapping + Add Contact.

First responders will be able to view and call these contacts without unlocking the device, provided you enable the Allow access to emergency info switch, which is on by default.

As with an iPhone, you’ll want to add your blood type, allergies, medications and so on. You also can indicate whether you're willing to be an organ donor. All the information you enter is saved only on your device, according to Google.

An emergency responder can view all this emergency information on a locked Pixel device with Android 12 or 13, by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, tapping Emergency | View emergency info. At that point your designated contacts and the medical information you’ve chosen to share will be visible.

Emergency SOS is another way to call 911

spinner image an illustration of an ambulance emerging from a smartphone

If able, you can dial 911 by pressing those numbers your phone app. But you have other ways to reach out for help on an iPhone or Android when you can’t tap out those digits.

On iPhone. If you have an iPhone 8 or later, you can call 911 by pressing and holding the side button and either of the volume buttons on the phone. When you do, an Emergency SOS slider appears on the screen. Drag this slider from left to right to call emergency services.

Make sure to visit iPhone Settings | Emergency SOS and check that the Call with Hold switch is green. If you continue to hold down the side button and volume button without dragging the slider until after a visible countdown appears, the iPhone will automatically call emergency services.

You can also call for help by rapidly pressing the side button on the phone five times, provided you enable Call with 5 Presses within Settings. A countdown will appear on the screen and an alert will sound. When the countdown ends, the phone will complete that call.

If you have an iPhone 7 or earlier, rapidly press the side or top button five times to summon the Emergency SOS slider. If you’d rather not hear the warning sound while the Emergency SOS feature counts down, in Settings | Emergency SOS, tap Countdown Sound and make sure it’s gray to disable this option.

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Apple added a Crash Detection feature to its iPhone 14 models. If the phone detects a severe crash it will call out to emergency services after 20 seconds, unless you cancel. If you cannot respond at all, the iPhone will play an audio message that lets emergency responders know you've been in a crash, and reports your approximate location within a search radius. 

The feature is on by default. To turn it off, open Settings | Emergency SOS, and tap the Call After Severe Crash button so that gray instead of green is showing.

On Android. Again, Android models vary. On Google’s own Pixel, return to Settings | Safety & Emergency. Next tap Emergency SOS.

Now when you quickly press the Power button five times during an emergency, the phone will sound an alarm, dial out for help, and share your real-time location and other information with designated contacts. If you take advantage of the Personal Safety app exclusive to the Pixel lineup, you can also record a video.

If you prefer to avoid unwanted attention and not sound an alarm when Emergency SOS is starting, tap Play alarm sound to disable the feature. Tap it again to restore the alarm.

Make sure the Record emergency video switch is enabled if you’re OK with your phone capturing up to 45 minutes of video during an emergency. You can manually stop the recording. Videos are automatically backed up on your Google Account and the Personal Safety app.

Google lets you run a simulation of the various safety features on the Pixel without actually dialing 911. Android phone owners can also find apps with similar features in the Google Play store.

Pixel owners can also take advantage of a Car crash detection feature that may bail you out of a jam if the phone detects you’ve been in a severe crash. Your phone will vibrate, sound an alarm and ask if you need help if a crash is detected.

If you don’t respond, the phone will contact 911 and provide your location and car crash data. You can turn on Car crash detection under the Safety & emergency settings.

Another potentially useful feature for Pixel owners is the Personal Safety app’s Safety Check. Say you’re about to enter an area that is unfamiliar and frankly a bit scary. You can arrange for the device to check up on you at a predetermined time. If you don’t confirm you are safe at that time, the phone will alert your emergency contacts that something may be wrong. (A Safety Check that came as part of Apple's iOS 16 update for iPhones is different, focusing on safety for domestic abuse victims.)

This story, originally published August 8, 2022, has been updated with new information.

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