Last month, Apple released an update for the Apple Watch. And amid the the new apps, digital watch faces and screen effects for texting, watchOS 3 incorporated an SOS feature that has the potential to save lives.

When the smartwatch hit the marketplace last year, many wondered how this wearable could be used in health care. Today, there are thousands of medical apps available to observe health, and the hardware itself comes with tracking functions like a built-in heart rate monitor.  These capabilities are particularly useful for self-diagnosing and non-emergency situations. But if someone was in crisis, like a senior citizen has a fall or sudden heart attack, SOS gives them a direct line to help.

Many remember the Life Alert “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” pendant where an elderly patient could call for help by pressing a button. You can think of the Apple Watch SOS feature as a more updated and integrated version of this medical alert technology — but with some critical drawbacks.

You can enable this functionality by going to your Apple Watch app on your iPhone, tap “General”, then tap “Emergency SOS”, and then switch on “Hold to Auto Call”. You can then designate 3 emergency contacts.

The way it works is simple:

  • If someone is in an emergency situation and wearing their watch, they press and hold the side button. A slide bar will appear on the screen.
  • They can continue to hold or slide, and emergency services are called (usually 911, but the watch uses current location to determine the best number to call — meaning this feature can be used anywhere in the world) and, if available in that area, their location is sent ahead.
  • Emergency services are then connected via live voice call.
  • Any medical information they’ve opted to share with Medical ID (allergies, medications, previous conditions) appears on the screen.
  • Simultaneously, a text is sent off to three pre-set phone numbers notifying them that the SOS feature has been activated and the wearer’s current location. If the location changes these contacts will also get an update.

As the tech-savvy Baby Boomer generation ages, technology like this could mitigate early entry into care facilities and take some worry away from their already overtaxed family caregivers.

The biggest critical flaw — you must have an iPhone to pair the watch with or be connected to a Wi-Fi network for this feature to work. So the SOS feature won’t be replacing Life Alert and those interesting throwback commercials we’ve come to know over the years. Apple did experiment with enabling cellular functionality for Apple Watch 2, but ran into battery life issues. When cellular functionality comes to Apple Watch, the SOS feature could be a must have for the elderly population.