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Medical-alert company turns to cell tech

The cell phone and global positioning technology that gave birth to the smartphone revolution is moving into senior care.

Oceanside-based American Medical Alert Corp. hopes a new generation of the personal emergency response system will give its business a boost. Older technology on the market is tethered to a landline: If a senior falls down and can't get up or has another emergency, a PERS device worn around the neck or wrist or in a pocket can link to emergency personnel or caregivers via a phone line.

But later this year Lifecomm , a joint venture between AMAC; Hughes Telematics, based in Atlanta, and Qualcomm, headquartered in San Diego, plans to introduce mobile-phone-based models that look like wristwatches or can be clipped discreetly onto a belt.

"In the years to come, we are going to move away, piece by piece, . . . from exclusively being reliant upon landlines in your home," AMAC president and chief executive Jack Rhian said in an investor call Tuesday. "We are taking advantage of the new technology that will allow us to monitor more people, more comprehensively, and not just at home."

AMAC, a minority partner in the venture, invested $4 million in the product last year.

Lifecomm vice president for business development Richard Lobovsky said in an email the company is partnering with a major wireless service provider, and the devices will be sold via authorized dealers.

Though existing systems are widely available from various sources, Elinor Ginzler, a vice president at AARP who deals with health issues, said adoption rates have been low.

"The more this can be a normalized piece of equipment . . . the more likely it is that it is going to be adopted," she said. "People do not want to be stigmatized even when they know they might need a device like this to provide assistance."

While older seniors may not be tech-savvy, baby boomers caring for their parents are encouraging them to use the newer devices coming on the market, said Dr. Richard Migliori, executive vice president and chief medical officer for UnitedHealth Group, a health insurance company. "The way in which they encourage them is by essentially saying, 'Look, if you're able to adopt this kind of technology, you're going to be able to live at home longer,' " Migliori said.

AMAC's investment was one reason its year-over-year net profits declined last year by $503,947 to $2.4 million on revenues of $40.8 million. The company has projected double-digit revenue growth this year, in part due to acquisitions expected this year.

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