Consumer Reports’ Tips on Buying a Medical Alert System

When an elderly adult, an adult living with disabilities or a family member realizes that a medical alert system is necessary for them to remain in their home as they age, the search reveals many companies with multiple systems and options. The choices are overwhelming at times, and it’s important to purchase the right system to meet each person’s unique needs.

This guide contains information and tips from Consumer Reports on buying a medical alert system. With this knowledge, seniors or family members can then create a list of important options and features that they need to look for when choosing a medical alert system.

Decide What Kind of Medical Alert System You Need

When looking to purchase a medical alert system, seniors and their families are faced with a multitude of options, including varied service plans, home and on-the-go systems, buttons, pendants, watches and base units that use landline connections or cellular signals. This makes it difficult to decide on a company and choose an equipment package. Review these steps to determine the best medical alert system based on your or your loved one’s needs.

Step 1: Decide Between at Home Use, Home and Mobile Use or Just Mobile Use

Home use: The original medical alert systems worked inside a user’s home through a landline connection. The simplest operation included pressing a button on a pendant or base console to speak with an emergency response operator who would dispatch emergency personnel, such as EMTs.

Today’s medical alert systems offer cellular network connections for those without a landline. Depending on the distance from the base console and the device, seniors or adults with mobility issues can visit their garden or walk out to their mailbox. These are home-based and will not work if the user travels beyond the signal’s reach.

Someone who remains at home most of the time would not need a mobile system that covers them while they’re on the go. Most medical alert systems that work at home have a lower monthly subscription rate than systems with more features.

Home and mobile use: For seniors who are active and like to travel or run around town, a medical alert system with mobile options is a better choice. These systems work at home and when away from home. There’s no distance limit to be able to connect to a base console. Many companies include a home system with devices and accessories and offer a mobile option in the form of a pendant or wristband that provides two-way communication between the user and response center operator. These systems work with a cellular network connection provided by the company and typically include GPS, which allows the operator or family members to find the wearer’s location.

Mobile use: Those who don’t want or need extra equipment at home can choose a brand with a smartwatch that they can wear at home or away without a base console or other accessories. These smartwatches emerging as medical alert devices are stylish watches that provide emergency services and include the functions of a smartwatch. They’re best for someone who enjoys technology and has a good understanding of setting up a smartwatch device.

Step 2: Decide Between a Monitored and Unmonitored System

Monitored System: Medical alert systems provide easy-to-press buttons or voice-activated options to speak with a trained emergency center operator. Once the operator determines that emergency help is needed, EMTs are dispatched to the user’s location. These companies also collect information from the user about who to notify in case of an emergency. One company, Medical Care Alert, employs operators who are trained and certified EMTs with hands-on knowledge and experience concerning medical emergencies. This adds reassurance for seniors or those with disabilities that the person on the phone understands their health situation and current needs.

Unmonitored System: Unmonitored  systems do not connect the user to a call center. Instead, the caller can choose to have their device call 911 or a friend, caretaker or family member. This kind of system may not be the best for those who have health conditions that can lead to dangerous falls or seizures. Not many companies offer unmonitored  systems, but those that do typically sell the equipment outright, and there’s no monthly subscription charge.

Step 3: Decide if Automatic Fall Detection is Needed

For seniors or adults with disabilities, such as epilepsy, those prone to seizures, diabetes, heart disease and other medical conditions that may cause a fall, automatic fall detection can be life-saving. If the user falls and the device they’re wearing has fall detection, the device may vibrate, play a sound to rouse the person or automatically call the response center operator. If the user responds by disabling the fall detection alert or can answer the operator through the two-way communication on their device, the alarm is canceled. If the user cannot cancel the alarm or speak to the operator, emergency services are dispatched automatically.

Fall detection is considered an important feature when choosing a medical alert system. Most companies offer fall detection with their devices, and others may offer fall detection as a separate device with an additional monthly cost.

Step 4: Choose Helpful Accessories and Features

Accessories and features make using a medical alert system more helpful and practical for some seniors. Consider the following options when researching medical alert systems.

  • A lockbox is a good idea. This way, when EMTs arrive, they won’t have to force the front door open or break the lock.
  • Wall buttons with two-way communication that are shower-safe work well when placed on walls in areas where a senior may slip or fall. They act like an extension of the medical alert system.
  • Phone apps are a great feature for seniors with a cell phone. They allow them to communicate directly with a list of contacts or a response center operator. These apps often give caregivers, family members or friends the ability to locate their loved ones and check on them.
  • Wearable options such as wristbands, pendants on lanyards, wheelchair strap holders or belt clips make wearing a medical alert device easier and more convenient for seniors and adults living with disabilities. Many companies also offer stylish jewelry-like devices that users can customize. These options help relieve the stigma of wearing a medical alert pendant and promote compliance.

When shopping for a medical alert system, remember to check the company’s return and cancellation policies and see if offer optional insurance is available for equipment breakage. These factors can help you buy the right medical alert system for yourself or your loved one.