What Is A Medical Alert System?

Vulnerable individuals, such as seniors or adults with disabilities, may need some extra help and support to live independently at home. Medical alert systems provide monitoring for these individuals so they can continue to live at home on their own with less risk. These systems have wearable pendants or help buttons that connect a user to assistance in the event of an emergency. Depending on the system, they can work inside and outside the home.

Falls are serious risks for seniors living alone. If they can’t get help quickly, the risk for more serious injury or even death is higher. The CDC estimates that 3 million elderly individuals head to the ER every year for fall injuries, and 800,000 people end up in the hospital as a result. From 2007 to 2016, fall death rates in the country increased by 30%. Based on these numbers, the CDC estimates a rate of seven fall deaths per hour by 2030. While they can’t prevent falls, medical alert systems allow a senior to call for help quickly after a fall, reducing the risk of death or more serious injury.

Although the technology is constantly evolving, medical alert systems aren’t new. AARP indicates the first systems hit the market in the mid-70s, offering push-button technology to alert a call center for help when the wearer had an emergency. Since that time, they’ve evolved to embrace new technologies and improve the help available to seniors. Today, seniors and their families have a wealth of options to consider with medical alert systems.

Who Should Consider a Medical Alert System?

Medical alert systems work well for seniors or adults living with disabilities who are at risk for medical emergencies or falls, but who wish to live independently. This makes them ideal for seniors who want to age in place.

These systems also help people living with chronic conditions that put them at higher risk for a medical emergency. For example, an adult living with congestive heart failure may need help quickly during a medical emergency, and medical alert systems make that possible.

How Medical Alert Systems Work

Medical alert systems use technology to connect seniors with help when they need it. Central to this operation is a help button, usually in the form of a wearable pendant or bracelet. If the wearer needs help, all they need to do is press the button to connect with assistance. Most systems offer two-way communication with a contact person or call center, so the wearer can explain the situation and get help.

Some medical alert systems are home-based systems that only work in the wearer’s residence. These have a pendant that communicates with a base station. The base station connects to the call center via a landline or VoIP line. Other medical alert systems connect through mobile technology. These systems work with cellular phone lines to stay connected to the monitoring center. They have GPS technology that allows the call center to locate the user if they push the call button and need help.

Many medical alert systems have fall detection technology options. This technology monitors the wearer’s daily activities and automatically summons help if it detects that the user has fallen. While this technology isn’t perfect and sometimes sounds a false alarm, it’s a valuable addition to medical alert systems to give additional peace of mind to seniors and their families.

Main Components of Medical Alert Systems

Knowing what the different components of a medical alert system do can help families choose the right system with the components their loved one needs. Here are some of the main components common to these systems:

  • Call button. The call button is the main way these systems allow users to get help. It’s typically a small, wearable device that attaches to a pendant or a wristband. It should be water-resistant for use in the bath or shower.
  • Base unit. Home systems have a base unit that includes a two-way speaker. This connects wirelessly to the call button. When the user has an emergency, it will connect with the call center dispatcher to get help.
  • Wristband or pendant. Some systems have a detachable wristband or pendant. Others have a call button that permanently attaches to a lanyard or wristband.
  • Wall unit. Some systems have separate consoles that hang from the wall. These operate similar to the base unit, but can hang in areas of the home where the base station doesn’t reach or where the risk of falls is higher. A bathroom is a common place where a wall unit makes sense.
  • Mobile medical alert units. These units are handheld call buttons the user takes with them when they leave home. Some have a wearable design that can connect to a pendant, while others are designed to stow in a pocket or purse. They have built-in speakers to connect to the call center or emergency contact. They also have GPS tracking technology.
  • Charging dock. Systems with a mobile communication device have charging stations to recharge the battery when at home. Some systems use the charging dock as a base station when the system is used at home.

Fall detection. Many systems have fall detection built into the medical alert pendant or help button. This technology monitors the wearer’s movements, and alerts emergency call center personnel if it senses a potential fall.

Main Types of Medical Alert Systems

Though most medical alert systems operate with the same basic premise, there are differences in these systems. Seniors and their families can choose from home-based and mobile systems, as well as monitored and unmonitored systems. Here’s a closer look at what each type of system offers.

Home-Based Medical Alert Systems

Home-based medical alert systems come with a base unit that has a two-way speaker built in. This is typically placed in a central location in the home and connects to either a landline or cellular network. The help button connects the wearer to the call center through the base unit. Some home systems have speakers in the pendants as well.

Because these systems connect to a base unit, which must be plugged in to the phone line or be powered through a wall outlet, they only work at home. Also, they have a limited range, as the pendant and help button needs to stay within a set range of the base unit to operate properly. The range varies from 600 feet to over 1,000 feet for these systems.

Home-based systems work well for seniors who rarely leave home and want the peace of mind of knowing help is available when needed.

Mobile Medical Alert Systems

Seniors who want the freedom to leave home can choose mobile alert systems. These connect to call centers through cellular networks. When the senior leaves home, the mobile unit goes with them to provide protection and tracking.

Although mobile alert system components may vary from one company to the next, there are some features that most have in common. These include:

  • GPS tracking. This is essential with mobile systems because it allows the call center to pinpoint the user’s location if they have an emergency. This also helps families who have a loved one prone to wandering away from home. As long as the individual has the pendant or call button on them, they can get help in a timely manner.
  • Cellular connectivity. Mobile units work through cellular networks to keep them connected to the call center. Users don’t have to have a cellular phone to use this service.
  • Waterproof pendant. Because many seniors use their mobile system as an at-home system, the pendant or call button should be waterproof or water-resistant. This means it’s safe for use in the shower or bath.

Mobile medical alert systems are ideal for seniors who are still actively driving or involved in the community. They also work well for seniors who may be at risk for wandering.

Monitored Alert Systems

Most home-based and mobile medical alert systems are monitored systems. This means they stay connected at all times to a monitoring center, providing an instant connection to a trained responder when the user pushes the help button. Some monitored systems have built-in fall detection, which sends an alert if the unit senses that the wearer has fallen.

Monitored systems provide a senior with around-the-clock access to help, but they do come with a monthly service fee. These systems are best for families who may not live close to their loved ones to provide personal attention in an emergency.

Non-monitored Alert Systems

Non-monitored alert systems aren’t connected to a call center. Instead, when the wearer pushes the help button, the system calls a designated emergency contact. It may also call 911 if the contact person isn’t accessible. These systems may allow two-way communication, or they may simply send an alert without the option to communicate directly.

Non-monitored systems typically have just an upfront cost. However, they don’t offer quite as much protection. If the designated call person doesn’t pick up the phone, the senior could end up without timely help. Most of these systems will automatically call 911 if the contact person doesn’t answer, but monitoring provides more help.

Non-monitored alert systems are ideal for families on a budget, but they require a contact person who’s local and usually available to help.

How To Choose a Medical Alert System

Because medical alert systems have similar technology and features, choosing one is sometimes difficult. Here are some factors to consider when comparing systems:

  • Monitored vs. Unmonitored. Families must first decide if monitored or unmonitored systems are right for their needs. If the senior has local people who can help, non-monitored systems are more affordable, but only monitored systems ensure help is available at any time, day or night.
  • Mobile vs. Home-Based. When choosing a system, families must decide if they need mobile monitoring or can benefit best from a home-based system. Some companies offer systems that have both types of monitoring bundled into one plan.
  • Call Center. If the system is monitored, look for a center that has trained emergency responders. UL certification is a sign of a quality monitoring center, and American-based is helpful as well.
  • Battery Life. For mobile units, a long battery life is beneficial. The system won’t work if the battery dies.
  • Fall Detection. Fall detection is usually an added feature. It may cost an additional fee, but it can add important protection.
  • Range. The range of the call button from the base unit determines how far within the home the individual can travel and still have protection.
  • Price. If all other features are the same, families should consider the cost of the system when making their decision. The price includes the installation fee, equipment cost, monthly monitoring fee and any add-ons such as fall detection.
  • Contracts. Some companies require long-term contracts, while others offer month-to-month plans. Long-term contracts make it difficult to make a change if the system isn’t working well, but they can provide the benefit of a locked-in price for the duration of the contract.
  • Return Policy. Families should research the return policy of the system they choose. If a problem develops, or if they decide a different system would work better, they need confidence that they can get their money back.

Ultimately, families need to weigh the coverage they receive and the equipment included with a system, along with its cost and contract requirements. By doing so, they can find the right system to provide peace of mind while helping their loved one age at home with less risk.