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Important Things to Know Before Choosing a Medical Alert System

Crystal Jo
Crystal Jo | Industry Expert

Emergencies happen and can’t always be prevented, that’s why you need to be prepared for the unexpected. When you get help quickly after a fall, injury, illness, or emergency you can return home faster and live independently longer. A medical alert system is one of the ways you or a loved one can feel more secure staying in your home or living alone. 

What is a medical alert system?

A medical alert system is a device that makes it easy to get help when you need it. The device can be an in-home unit that is set up somewhere in your home (such as a kitchen counter) with a call button that is typically worn as a necklace pendant or watch. 

There are also mobile units that are connected to GPS and other location services that are able to pinpoint your location in an emergency.

Both types of systems have a help button that when pressed will call the emergency response center or a person that you choose when setting up your medical alert system.

Medical alert systems can also be called:

  • Personal Emergency Response System (PERS)
  • Medical Emergency Response System (MERS)

How do medical alert systems work?

An at-home medical alert system will typically have a base unit that is connected to an electrical outlet and your landline. The base has an easy-to-find emergency button, which is often red. 

There is also a built-in speaker and a microphone that allows you to talk to the emergency response center hands-free. You don’t have to get to the base to get help, unlike trying to use a phone to call for help.

The portable or wearable help button is meant to be worn 24/7 either as a necklace or a watch. There is a large easy-to-find button that can be pressed in emergencies. If you are too far from the base unit to talk to the agent who answers, they will call your emergency contacts or 911.

A mobile medical alert system is similar to the portable help button but can be larger and heavier because it contains all the functions within the part you wear. This includes a help button, a speaker and a microphone to talk to the emergency response center.

A mobile system works over a cellular connection and typically includes GPS.

Many of the top recommended medical alert systems are monitored. This means that when you press the help button, you will quickly be connected with a trained emergency response agent at a monitoring center.

You can provide the company with information when you set up such as:

  • Health conditions
  • Allergies
  • Medications
  • List of contacts (such as a next-door neighbor, caregiver, or closest relative)
  • Combination of a lockbox for first responders to access your home

 A quality monitored system will answer a call for help within 20 to 40 seconds. The agent will ask if you want them to call 911; if you are unable to respond, they will call your emergency contacts including 911. The agent can give your medical history and address to 911.

An unmonitored system will call a pre-programmed list of friends or family members rather than contact a monitoring center and emergency responders. Monitored systems often have monthly fees, where an unmonitored system may not. 

Who needs a medical alert system?

Medical alert systems may make you think of a frail and helpless person fearfully living alone who never leaves the house. This picture is not accurate. Medical alert systems can provide benefits for people in many different situations and levels of health.

Medical alert systems are designed to provide an extra layer of security so you can live your life fully knowing that if you ever need it, help is just a button away.

People who may want to use a medical alert system include the following:

Active seniors

While you are enjoying an active busy life, a medical alert system can be your safety net. You have help available if a fall happens while you are out, you can take a mobile device with you and can even use a tracking device so your loved ones or emergency personnel can find you quickly.

Those living alone

One of the biggest concerns you may have about living alone is: what if something happens to me? A medical alert system can help you feel safer living on your own.

Those living with mental health concerns

Conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease can make a person more likely to injure themselves or to wander. Many other mental health concerns may make you worry about loved ones being on their own. A medical alert system can help you provide a less intrusive form of supervision.

Those living with a medical condition

If you or a loved one has a medical condition, you know how quickly health can change. A medical alert system can often be lifesaving in giving you the ability to get help quickly if you fall or are having trouble.

Why should I get a medical alert system?

Accidents, falls, and sickness don’t wait for convenient times to occur, such as when a loved one is close by or a caregiver is in the house. Medical alert systems are useful because they are always there. Once your system is set up, it can help you to know you or your loved one is not alone.

Falls happen and they can happen often. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 25 percent of seniors fall each year. These falls can often cause broken bones, head injuries, and long hospital stays.

The quicker you can get help after a fall or medical emergency, the less severe the long-term consequences will be. A medical alert system provides security for someone living on their own. You can maintain your independence while knowing help is easy to access. This security can also help family members to worry less about their loved ones.

What are the different types of medical alert systems?

There are many different styles and types of medical alert systems, but these are the three general categories you will find.

In-home

An in-home unit does just that, it stays in your home. There is a base unit that is set up in your home and a wearable pendant or watch that is meant to be worn 24/7. The base has a speaker and microphone that allows you to talk with the medical alert monitoring center hands-free. 

The base station is plugged into both an electrical socket and the landline. The wearable part typically is a small medical alert button you press in an emergency. You need to be close to the base to talk to the agent. If you don’t respond or are not able to get to the base, the agent will usually call 911 for you.

In-home units are typically best for those that spend the majority of their time at home.

Mobile

A mobile unit goes where you go. Instead of using a landline, they are connected via a cellular signal. Mobile units are equipped with GPS and tracking services. The mobile unit can be a one-piece unit that contains the battery, speaker, and microphone. Or it may be a two-part unit that has a charging base and a wearable help button.

Mobile units are excellent for those who are on the go often, whether that be driving often, working in the garden, taking walks, leaving the house frequently, etc. If you’re someone leaving the house often enough, mobile units can definitely be the better option and will provide an extra layer of safety no matter where you are.

Smart watch

Wearable medical alert watches give you all the benefits of a medical alert system without looking like a medical alert system. They are designed to look like and have many of the features of a smart watch.

A wearable medical alert watch typically includes GPS tracking, a red emergency button that calls for help, and a long-lasting battery. Other features can include medication reminders, text or voice messaging, and even weather forecasts. Smart watch systems are great for consumers looking for an inconspicuous, sleek medical alert device that has multi-functional capabilities in addition to medical alert services. 

Fall detection

An additional feature that can be included in the wearable part of most medical alert systems is fall detection. Fall detection works by monitoring for any sudden abrupt movements.

Although it is not always 100 percent correct, it does offer an extra level of protection if you were to fall and not be able to call for help. The convenience of fall detection is you don't have to physically press a button for the device to trigger a call for help; the device will detect a fall and call for help automatically.

Imagine if your loved one experienced a fall and was left unconscious. Without fall detection, that person may not be able to get help until someone comes home to check on them, which is extremely dangerous. 

Most medical alert companies offer fall detection as an add-on for an additional $5 to $10 per month. 

What does a medical alert system cost?

The cost of a medical alert system will vary depending on the model and the features you choose. There are four aspects you should consider when looking at the cost:

Activation fees

The set-up and activation of your equipment may or may not be included with your medical alert system. This can be free for some companies but others could charge up to $50.

Monitoring or equipment costs

You will want to check with the company if there is a charge for use of the equipment. Many companies will provide the equipment as a loan until you’re finished using the equipment but will charge a monthly monitoring fee. This is the most common and the monthly fee usually ranges between $20 to $50.

More advanced medical alert equipment, such as smart watches, will often require you to pay for it upfront, the cost typically being close to $100. 

Cancellation fees and contracts

Some companies will require a set contract, or will have billing set up monthly, quarterly, or yearly. Contracts range from 12 to 36 months and may have a cancellation fee if you no longer need the medical alert system. Check if there is a set contract length and what happens if you opt out during that time.

Extra features

The more features you choose, the more additional costs there will be. Features such as GPS tracking and fall detection can add an extra $10 to $50 per month.

What should I look for in a medical alert system?

Now that you know what a medical alert system is and how it works you need to decide what are the most important features to look for. There are companies that will not provide you with a quality product and end up costing you money without providing the help you need.

Check off these seven categories to know you are making a good decision.

  • Customer support — You want to make sure that you and your loved one are supported in using the medical alert system both during set-up and in an emergency. Good customer support counts.
  • Installation — If you can’t get the medical alert system working, it will be no use to you. Simple installation is an important feature.
  • Fees — Decide what you can afford and know what the total set-up and monthly fees will be, including the cost of the equipment and any extra features you want, such as fall detection.
  • Your lifestyle — The type of medical alert system has to fit you or your loved one’s lifestyle, whether that is in-home, mobile, or a wearable smartwatch.
  • Easy to use — In an emergency, you will not have the ability to remember complicated steps. A good medical alert system should be easy enough for anybody to operate at any time.
  • Customer reviews — The strength of customer reviews lets you know if other people have found a company reliable and what features they found most useful. Top rated companies should have undeniably positive reviews that offer you peace of mind you're doing business with a quality company that has extensive support. For example, Medical Guardian, the #1 rated medical alert company, has thousands of reviews with more than 85% of them being 4 or 5 stars. Companies like this provide confidence in your medical alert choice.
  • Certifications — Many medical alert systems will have optional certifications for their monitoring centers such as being CSAA Five Diamond Certified, ESA Security Certified, or UL Certified. These certifications let you know their centers are assessed by an outside company and have been found an outstanding company with exceptional safety guidelines and reliable equipment. Although these are not requirements in the medical alert industry, it's an extra precaution when choosing a medical alert company that will give you peace of mind the provider makes its customers' safety its top priority. 

What are the different types of medical alert certifications?

CSAA Five Diamond

If a medical alert company is CSAA Five Diamond Certified, it means its monitoring centers and safety precautions have been checked and verified as quality and effective. If you have a monitored medical alert system, this certification is going to be important to ensure the company you choose has a quick response time and is prepared to handle the emergency as efficiently as possible. The monitoring center could be the determining factor of your or your loved one's quick recovery if a fall or emergency occurs. Most trustworthy medical alert providers have this certification. 

Underwriters Laboratories (UL Listed)

Medical alert companies will often have "UL Listed" as a selling point. This means the company's equipment is trusted and effectively constructed. This certification also typically suggests the staff and company headquarters are prepared to handle a possible fire, ensuring customers' emergency calls will not be ignored if such a situation occurs. 

Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

The FCC was created by the United States government and handles communications, such as satellite, cable, etc. Medical alert systems fall into this since base stations function through a landline or cellular connection and communicate directly with monitoring centers. Being regulated by the FCC makes sure the communication process between medical alert companies and their equipment and customers is effective. 

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Medical Alert Systems Frequently Asked Questions

How can I tell I need a medical alert system?

The first place to start is to look at your or your loved one’s needs and abilities, as well as what will likely happen in the future. If you or your loved one is living alone, has had a fall, has a health condition, is having trouble with memory, or is prone to wandering, a medical alert system can be lifesaving.

How do I talk to a loved one about medical alert systems?

Start by acknowledging your loved one’s feelings and needs. Getting a medical alert system can feel like a loss of independence and they may feel upset that they are getting older.

You might say it is like using a seatbelt — you hope they will never need it but it helps you feel better knowing there is a safety feature in place. Also, stress that a medical alert system isn't a loss of independence. Having a medical alert device provides more independence by giving the user and their loved ones added security. If they want more freedom to be alone and continue with their day-to-day routine, why not have an added security measure to call for help if need be?

Help your loved one to look at or try out different systems. Read customer reviews together. Ask your loved ones what are their specific worries or what they need and look for a system that fits them best that they will feel comfortable using.

Because medical alert systems are becoming more discreet and high-tech, you can offer medical alert devices such as smart watches that will likely be an exciting purchase for them that goes beyond a simple help button. A medical alert device having additional features can give the user more to look forward to without focusing on potentially being upset they need a piece of equipment to feel safer. It doesn't have to be focused just on the safety element of the equipment. 

Can I use an unmonitored medical alert system?

Yes, you can purchase an unmonitored alert system and install it yourself. An unmonitored system will only call the programmed numbers and does not have access to 24/7 help or fall detection capabilities. If you want peace of mind, you're usually better off opting for a monitored medical alert system. 

Are medical alert systems covered by health care/Medicare/insurance?

A medical alert system is typically not covered by Medicare or private insurance. In some states, Medicaid may cover part of the cost. There may be discounts for veterans or through your hospital or medical organization.

How do medical alert systems work with people with memory impairments?

Medical alert systems can work well for people with memory impairments if they are worn 24/7. You will want to choose a system that is discreet and consistently worn. Features such as fall detection and GPS tracking are especially helpful with memory loss.

What is the best medical alert company?

The highest ranked medical alert company is Medical Guardian. This is a professionally monitored medical alert provider that has a certified monitoring center and award-winning customer service.

Medical Guardian has thousands of positive reviews, affordable monthly fees, and free equipment as well as activation. Medical Guardian also has high-tech medical alert options, including a medical alert smartwatch.

You can find more information about the top-ranked medical alert companies at the top of this page.

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