The plan by an Oxford hospital is designed to help patients who are cared for in the community and for the first time involves a directional tracking method, rather than a boundary-controlled bleep device such as those used for inventory control in shops.
Patients will be fitted with the device, a 2cm by 1cm box with a 10cm wire-type aerial, which they will be able to wear behind a lapel. When they have been away from home too long, they can be tracked down with a simple receiver that indicates the direction the transmitter has been taken.
The plans for the trial are bound to raise difficult questions over the ethics of tagging innocent elderly people. Critics warn it is dehumanising; supporters say it can mean more freedom and less medication.
The trial, which is designed to test whether the devices can be put to a practical use, has the approval of the research ethics committee at the Radcliffe Infirmary and should be under way later this summer. Dr Rupert McShane, a pyschiatrist at the hospital who is co-ordinating the trial, said: 'What we want to do is simply to establish if it's feasible. The number one aim is to improve the quality of life of the patients.'
They will select nine suitable patients once they have permission from their carers. They might be elderly people who have become forgetful or who are difficult to control, suffering from conditions such as Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
Although the technology exists for a more sophisticated tracking method which could identify the exact location of the patient the hospital has deliberately chosen the more basic directional system. The test will be community based and so the preferred system can be used by one person, the carer for example. It was also felt that a directional system raised fewer civil rights issues as it did not pinpoint the subject's exact location.
Tagging could prove valuable to the police, who devote considerable resources to finding elderly patients.
Some professionals believe tagging could prove very effective with certain types of elderly patients, giving them more freedom and taking pressure off carers who would need to spend less time supervising them.
Leading article, page 11