Medical Alert Devices

These wearable devices can help you summon assistance in an emergency. Here’s a look at the many options available.

By Catherine Roberts

Concerned about falling or needing help with a health problem when you’re alone?

Medical alert systems—where the press of a wearable call button puts you in touch with a dispatcher who can summon emergency help or contact a friend or family member—may offer some reassurance.

“Anyone who is at risk of falling or having a medical emergency” may benefit from such a device, says Leah Bellman, M.S., an occupational therapist and a healthcare process improvement analyst with Commonwealth Care Alliance in Boston, Mass.

If you’re considering such a system, which should you choose? The wide variety of features, service options, and fees can make it challenging to figure out what’s best for you.

Also, you might wonder whether you can simply rely on the technology you already have, such as a smartphone. Probably not, experts say. 

That’s because it’s unlikely that you have your smartphone with you all the time, says Mindy Renfro, Ph.D., D.P.T., an associate professor in the school of physical therapy at Touro University Nevada in Henderson. It’s easy to get up from a chair and leave it there. “If you don’t have an emergency response system on your body that is going to stay on your body, you’re at risk,” she says. 

And if you’re considering a digital assistant, such as Amazon’s Alexa, for this purpose, note that it may not have all the features you need. For example, Alexa and Google Home can dial landline and mobile phone numbers. But right now, neither can call 911, which medical alerts can do.

Here, the expert advice you need before you purchase a medical alert system, and a breakdown of the features and costs of nine companies’ offerings.

3 Key Questions to Answer First

When you’re ready to begin shopping for a medical alert, you’ll need to make three decisions that will affect the overall functionality of your system and how much you’ll pay. The rundown:

1. Do You Want a Home-Based or Mobile System?
Originally, medical alert systems were designed to work inside your home with your landline telephone.

And you can still go that route. Many companies now also offer the option of home-based systems that work over a cellular network for those who may not have a landline.

With these systems, pressing the wearable call button allows you to speak to a dispatcher through a base unit located in your home.

But many companies offer mobile options, too. You can use these systems at home, but they’ll also allow you to call for help while you’re out and about.

These operate over cellular networks and incorporate GPS technology. This way, if you get lost or press the call button for help but are unable to talk, the monitoring service can find you.

Someone who is frail and doesn’t leave the house often may not need a mobile system, while an active older adult may want added protection outside the home, notes Richard Caro, Ph.D., a co-founder of Tech-Enhanced Life, which evaluates and reviews products for older adults.

2. Should Your System Be Monitored or Not?
The systems we’ve provided information on below are all monitored, meaning that the call button connects you with someone at a 24/7 dispatching center.

But you have the option to choose a system that isn’t monitored. With these, when you press the call button, the device automatically dials a friend or family member on your programmed emergency call list.

These products can often be set up to call multiple people and to contact emergency services if you don’t get an answer from someone on your list.

A key difference between the two is price. Monitored systems carry a monthly fee in addition to the purchase price for the device. But with unmonitored systems, you generally pay only for the device itself. Monitored systems may also have other fees, such as activation fees as well as minimum commitments or contracts. And their cancellation and return policies can vary from company to company.

3. Should You Add a Fall-Detection Feature?
Some companies offer the option of automatic fall detection for an additional monthly fee. Manufacturers say these devices sense falls when they occur and automatically contact the dispatch center, just as they would if you had pressed the call button.  

That sounds great, but it may not work perfectly every time, says Neil Alexander, M.D., a professor of geriatric and palliative medicine at the University of Michigan and director of the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center.

“The technology probably isn’t fully refined,” he says. In some cases, for instance, this feature may register something as a fall that isn’t. The alarm might go off if you drop it or momentarily lose your balance but don’t actually land on the ground.

The companies we looked into that offer fall detection charge $15 or less for it per month, so the additional cost isn’t huge. But if you’re at high risk for falls, be aware that this feature isn’t without potential flaws.

Comparison of 9 Systems

Below, we compare companies whose products you’re likely to see advertised, have a long history in the industry, or both. The companies are listed alphabetically. Two things to keep in mind:

  • We included only monitored systems because they have monthly fees that can vary from product to product and may also have other fees and variable contracts, minimum commitments, and return policies.
  • We contacted all the companies but haven’t tested the systems, so we can’t confirm manufacturers’ claims. According to representatives from the companies, the call centers are based in the U.S. or Canada, and dispatchers take only one emergency call at a time. In addition, all said that their call buttons for in-home systems work at a distance of at least a football-field’s length away from the base station and that mobile and in-home call buttons can be worn in the shower without being damaged. Note also that the categories listed below for comparison are not meant to be comprehensive. Companies may offer additional features.

And three important tips:

  • Check return policies carefully if you have hearing lossThese policies, Renfro says, may be an especially important consideration if you’re in this group because you’ll need to be able to set a device’s volume high enough to hear the person on the other end of the line without a hearing aid. This can generally be tested only after purchase, so you may want to consider a system that’s easy to return.
  • Ask for a deal. When you contact a manufacturer, you may want to ask for a better price than the one that’s listed. Several companies told us they allow their salespeople to offer discounts.
  • Be careful about buying for others. If you’re buying a medical alert system for a loved one, experts recommend asking which kind of product the recipient thinks he or she would wear and use, and which features are desired. “You don’t surprise someone with one of these,” Renfro says. “It’s not a gift option.”

Bay Alarm Medical

One of Bay Alarm's medical alert systems.

PHOTO: BAY ALARM MEDICAL

Monthly cost for in-home landline service: $20.

Monthly cost for in-home cellular service: $30.

Monthly cost for mobile GPS tracking option: $30.

Monthly cost to add fall detection: $10.

Commitment or contract: None.

Activation fee: None.

Cancellation fee: None (full refund, minus…

This article was sourced from Consumer Reports.

2 thoughts on “Medical Alert Devices

    • July 7, 2020 at 7:43 pm
      Permalink

      Theodore,

      We are happy that this article was able to help you in choosing a medical alert system. Thanks for leaving a comment!

      Reply

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