A Visit to Philips Lifeline

Typically, an incident or circumstance triggers the need for the service

By Laurie Orlov

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 three-hour visit to Philips' location in Framingham, Massachusetts, where the call centers are located. We toured both call centers, and I learned about the infrastructure behind the calls—more than eight million per year.

Philips execs told me that they have approximately 650,000 call center subscribers through 3,000 partner programs—like hospitals, Red Cross, VNA, or home care agencies—that represent the eight 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, typically 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 care 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 he or she is frail and needs it.

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 that when the answer is garbled, he has to restate the question to make sure the caller has heard and is 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), including 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 persons and/or those suffering from chronic disease. The walls of the office buildings are filled with enlarged photographs of seniors, mostly women, with pendants around their neck, sporting big smiles for the camera.

Think about it: alone and in your 80s 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.

By Laurie Orlov
Aging in Place Technology Watch Blog

[Originally posted August 15, 2009, at Laurie's Aging in Place Technology Watch Web site.]

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