IT’S an innovative scheme that could help save lives.

New wearable GPS technology is being piloted in Southampton with dementia patients, giving families the ability to quickly locate their loved ones should they go missing.

The £5,000 project is run by the police, Southampton City Council’s social services team and Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust.

The device, which costs the trust about £4.50 per week per person, is in the form of a small pendant which can be worn around the neck or fitted to a belt or keys.

It emits a GPS signal that is traceable on a secure website covering the whole of the UK and Europe, enabling the user’s family – or, in an emergency, the police – to check up on them.

But is this just this technology’s usefulness?

Could these GPS devices be rolled out to other areas of healthcare, such as mental health patients or vulnerable children at risk of running away, giving families the peace of mind of knowing where their loved ones are and whether they are safe?

Or, as some will argue, will advances such as these be another step towards society becoming a ‘nanny state’ where everyone’s movements are tracked wherever they go?

The experts have had their say, and they are ruling out the latter.

Julia Lury, a specialist occupational therapist practitioner with Southern Health, said there was a chance the technology could be expanded to include other patients such as those with mental health problems, but that dementia was the focus for the time being.

She added: “There are also other devices out there different from ours, like a GPS wristband that might appeal more to younger people and teenagers.”

Julia said it was very much up to a patient to decide whether they want to wear the device and dismissed fears this could lead to people being tracked without their consent.

She said: “It’s personal choice to wear the device. We would like to offer it to people earlier because they would be more likely to accept it because they understand its purpose.

“We tend to give it to people who are further along in their condition and are at risk of going missing, but again it is their choice.

“There is an issue whether they will be compliant or whether we use a carer or their family to help or prompt them to use it.

“We find putting it on a key is useful because people tend to remember to take their keys even if they don’t remember the device is on them.”

She added: “Families are saying the devices are reducing their stress considerably and they worry much less about where their loved one is.

“It gives them not only an online location but also shows their movements so they know where they’ve been. And the difference in cost between £4.50 per week for this and a week’s residential care is massive.”

A spokesman for Hampshire police said they had no intention of expanding the technology to other vulnerable people at this time and that the device is optional.

The spokesman said: “It is hoped the technology will save lives and prevent dementia sufferers from getting lost and falling victim to the elements as a result of being missing for long periods of time.

Consent “Adult social services will assess each vulnerable person who is recommended to see whether they are suitable for the pilot but the devices are not compulsory and will only be issued with consent from the dementia sufferer themselves, or if they are unable to give their consent, this can be given by their family or carer.

“Not all dementia sufferers will want to take part.”

About 25 devices are currently in use, including one for Bitterne-based grandfather William Hodder.

The 83-year-old suffers from dementia and the technology has taken a weight off his family’s shoulders, according to daughter Trish.

Trish, 44, who acts as William’s full-time carer, said: “It’s just superb. It’s given us peace of mind and it means Dad retains his independence, which is so important to him.

“Having the tracker in the evening is good for us because we can know where he is if he has gone out and the website is really easy to use, even if you’re not very computer literate, like me.”

DCI David Brown, who is leading the project for Hampshire police, added: “Last year three people with dementia in Hampshire who went missing in six months died despite our best efforts in trying to find them. This project and the technology being used can help us massively by enabling us to find these people as quickly as possible before they get into difficulty.”

Southampton General Hospital bosses believe the devices will help reduce pressures on their staff as they currently see about two people per week admitted to A&E who have got lost and disorientated.