How to Choose a Medical Alert System
A medical alert system can bring peace of mind, allow you to remain comfortable in your own home, and enable you to continue living life to the fullest. It connects you with the help that you need whenever you need it. With the press of a button (or, in the case of systems with fall detection, the triggering of an automatic alert), medical help can be on its way to you in moments. That can make a major difference in health outcomes, giving you a better chance at continuing to enjoy a fulfilling life after a medical emergency — while also helping you to relax and rest easy every day and night.
But which medical alert system should you choose? Our tool above can help make this decision simple. Our medical alert system finder tool asks simple questions in order to find precise answers. It should be all that you need in order to find the best medical alert system — but if you want to learn more about what goes into the calculations, read on!
The Elements of a Medical Alert System
The point of a medical alert system is to speed up response times in the event of a medical emergency. Most medical alert systems make use of the same sorts of devices and services to accomplish this goal, but it’s worth taking a more in-depth look at those elements, especially as we prepare to differentiate between the offerings on the medical alert system market.
One of the two most basic features of a medical alert system (along with a communication/monitoring solution, which we’ll talk about next) is the button that you press in order to trigger the alert. With at-home systems, the main hub for communication is the base unit, which operates off of your home’s electric system along with either your landline or the medical alert provider's cellular connection. The base unit should be placed in a central location. While the base unit usually includes a speaker and microphone, this two-way communication with the monitoring center will only work as far as your voice carries. This is the reason that most systems include a waterproof help button that runs on a battery. The help button can be worn on a lanyard around the neck or with a wristband.
With on-the-go systems, the mobile device operates as a base station that you carry along with you. In other words, it includes a help button that connects with a monitoring center and two-way talk capability. Some mobile systems will include an additional help button (similar to one that you would have for an at-home system) so that you can carry the main device in a purse or pocket and wear the lightweight button. Others are all-in-one systems; everything is built into a single piece of equipment.
Communication and Monitoring
A help button is only useful if it gets you help, which is why trained agents are monitoring your system. They will communicate with you when you press the help button so that they can dispatch proper help if necessary. Many monitoring centers use a translation service for older adults whose primary language is not English. Also, look for a TMA Five Diamond certification, the gold standard in monitoring certifications.
Automatic Fall Detection
Because one out of four Americans over the age of 65 fall every year,1 fall detection is a crucial add-on offered by most medical alert providers. With at-home systems, it is added to the help button. With on-the-go systems, it comes as either an additional help button or is built into the all-in-one medical alert device. In either case, to work effectively, the fall detection device should be worn around the neck. When a person falls, sensors will trigger an alert which automatically goes to the monitoring center. So even if the fall leads to an injury rendering the person unable to push the help button, the monitoring center is alerted of the fall and can send help if necessary.
What Differentiates Medical Alert Systems?
Now we know what makes a medical alert system…a medical alert system. But there are lots of systems out there. If they all have the sorts of hardware and services that we listed above, then what’s the difference between them?
Landline vs. Cellular Systems
If you are someone who spends most of your time in your home, or seldom leave home unaccompanied, an at-home system is probably a good fit. Next, you will need to determine whether you want a system that has a landline or cellular connection. Most providers offer the option of either one. Much of this comes down to what type of service you use in your home.
Make note of two important points. First, a system that uses a cellular connection will use the provider’s connection, not your own. So it is important that you receive a decent signal in your area with say, AT&T, if that is the provider’s carrier. Second, systems that use a landline connection tend to run $5 to $10 less expensive than systems that use a cellular connection.
Another big consideration with at-home systems is range. This refers to the distance that you can travel from the base unit when wearing a help button. Providers offer a wide array — anywhere from 300 feet to 1,400 feet (over four football fields). Remember that bigger is better only if you have a large home or a large yard that you like to spend time in. Consider the size of your living space and choose accordingly.
Traditional vs. Smartwatch
On-the-go medical alerts come in a variety of shapes and sizes. You can expect to see at least one traditional medical alert from every provider of monitored systems. It will generally weigh between one and three ounces and come in the shape of a tic tac box. It can be worn around the neck, clipped to a belt, or carried in a purse or pocket.
Additionally, the number of providers offering a smartwatch medical alert has grown as the popularity of smartwatches like the Apple Watch continues to increase. Most of these smartwatches offer the same safety features as traditional medical alerts along with a few added features like a step tracker, weather app, or heart monitor. In addition, they offer older adults the option of a wearable medical alert that is discreet and fashion forward.
One of the benefits of a mobile medical alert is that they offer GPS location tracking. If you press the help button but are unable to communicate your whereabouts, a monitoring center agent will use GPS to identify your location. Some providers offer even more precise location detection using WiFi and cellular data in addition to GPS. This is referred to as advanced or enhanced location detection.
Location tracking for caregivers is an added bonus. Some providers include this benefit within their systems, and some offer it as an add-on for an additional cost. With it, caregivers can download an app onto their phones and track location through it.
Prices and Contracts
Even if all medical alert systems were the same (and, as we’ve seen, they’re not!), there would still be one thing left to consider about them: the price! Providers offer their devices and their services at different prices. Generally, you’ll pay a monthly rate for monitoring coverage. In some cases, you will also be required to pay a one-time equipment fee. Other costs to be aware of are any add-on products or services that you choose and hidden fees. Not all providers tack on hidden fees, but for those that do, they will show up as activation, installation, processing or membership fees.
In addition to varying prices, medical alert systems offer varying contract terms. Several of the best medical alert system options on the market require no commitment at all — with these systems, you’ll pay month by month and can cancel at any time. Other companies will lock you into a contract that can run for years and will penalize you if you cancel early. Be careful!
Tailoring Your Choice to Your Needs
Now that we know how medical alert systems work and how they differ from each other, we can see how important it is to choose the right system.
As you shop for your medical alert system, keep your specific needs in mind. Do you have a landline? Do you want your medical alert system to work outside of your home? How large is your house — will it take multiple devices to cover it fully? How much are you willing to pay, and how much of a commitment are you willing to make to one provider? Asking questions like these (and using our online resources and tools) will guide you to the right medical alert system.