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24/7 Safety: A Comprehensive Guide to Medical Alert Systems

October 20, 2023

medical alert systems
Take a moment to think about a situation where a loved one ends up all alone during a medical emergency. It distresses you, doesn't it? Especially if your loved one is older or disabled. 

The worry of a medical crisis is understandable, but for those of us who care for elderly or disabled people, a medical alert bracelet or other emergency medical services becomes a lifeline.

But before opting for a medical alert system, understand how they work, the costs involved, and the key features worth considering.

How do medical alert systems work?

Medical alerts protect the safety and well-being of the disabled, the elderly, or those with certain medical conditions. They blend technology and human intervention to create a safety net in times of need.

How medical alerts work

Pressing the help button triggers the beginning of a series of steps intended to make sure your loved one is safe and healthy. Once the help button is activated, a monitoring center staffed by emergency professionals receives a notification. It dispenses essential information like the user's identity, medical documents, and exact current location, which is determined through GPS tracking.

A key feature of many modern medical alert systems is two-way communication. Monitoring services professionals can directly communicate with the user, evaluate the situation, and comfort them while deciding on the best course of action. Whether a minor incident or an emergency, the staff is prepared to guide the unwell user and offer assistance until help arrives.

Based on the assessment, the monitoring center contacts the appropriate emergency services. This could involve sending paramedics, firefighters, or law enforcement. The center shares the user's medical records and pre-existing conditions with the responders to ensure they can provide effective assistance.

Who needs a medical alert system?

Medical alert systems cater to people of different ages and abilities, seeking extra safety and peace of mind. These systems provide essential support in various circumstances:

  • Living far away from loved ones and friends. Medical alert devices bridge the geographical gap. These devices ensure that even in distress or emergency, assistance is just a button press away, offering peace of mind to the individual and their distant support network.
  • Living alone. Individuals living alone greatly benefit from medical alert devices, as they provide immediate access to an emergency contact. This direct access is crucial when quick medical attention or assistance is required, even if no one is physically present to help.
  • Mental and physical challenges. These devices can be customized to alert caregivers or medical professionals when urgent assistance is required for physical, mental, or emotional well-being.

Nevertheless, it's worth noting that medical alert devices are only sometimes suitable. They might not be the best option if a person:

  • May need a higher level of supervision or care beyond what a medical alert system can provide.
  • Struggles with consistent and reliable usage of the device.
  • Experiences limitations in cellular connectivity, although certain units can utilize a landline connection as an alternative.


of US adults say they or their care recipients use a medical alert system.

Source: Forbes Health

History of medical alert systems

Medical alert systems have advanced significantly since Wilhelm Hormann introduced the idea of home safety for seniors in the early 1970s with ALERT-1.

Hormann's concept, known as Hausnotruf, or literally “home emergency call,” was originally designed for data sharing in the medical field but quickly transformed into home protection for individuals needing assistance.

In 1975, the American International Telephone Company improved on Hormann's idea by creating a wearable necklace and medallion system for seniors. When activated, it sent pre-written distress messages to predetermined phone numbers for help.

Life Alert services, with origins dating back to 1972, envisioned aiding elderly individuals in emergencies, even without access to their phones. This concept blossomed into an industry in the 1980s, popularized by the "I've fallen, and I can't get up!" awareness-raising commercial from 1989.

While these systems changed with technology, limitations persisted in the 1980s and 1990s due to the dearth and limited sophistication of cell phones, tethering seniors to their homes and landlines.

Medical alert systems vs. medical ID bracelets

Medical alert systems are a direct line of communication to a dedicated monitoring center. In times of need, they swiftly signal for assistance and promptly connect someone with an emergency contact or the appropriate emergency services. This sophisticated technology offers comprehensive coverage and peace of mind.

Medical alert systems vs. medical ID bracelets

Medical ID bracelets show essential medical information at a glance. They contain vital details such as allergies, medical conditions, and emergency contacts. While invaluable for communicating critical information, their effectiveness is limited when immediate assistance is required, and no one is nearby to see the information on the bracelet.

While medical alert systems and ID bracelets have their merits, it's important to recognize that they offer a more proactive and robust solution in emergency scenarios. However, combining the two can provide a comprehensive approach to personal safety and medical awareness.

Top features of medical alert systems

Let's delve into the top features of medical alert systems, each of which plays a critical role in enhancing safety and well-being:

  • Fall detection sensors. These are tiny detectors inside wearable devices equipped with special tools to determine if a person has slipped or fallen. If such an incident occurs, the sensors automatically contact you. 
  • GPS tracking. Many companies offer wearables and devices with GPS technology, enabling precise location tracking using satellite signals. This feature is invaluable during emergencies, allowing for pinpoint accuracy and rapid response.
  • Caregiver tools. Medical alert systems transmit information like button presses, movement patterns, or sleep data. They can alert you when the device's battery is low or the wearer moves beyond expected boundaries or removes the device.
  • Environmental monitoring. Some medical alert devices have specialized sensors that detect issues like gas leaks or fires. When these sensors identify such situations, they automatically alert you. 
  • Voice communication. Certain wearables enable direct contact with the monitoring center through the device, a crucial feature for requesting assistance when necessary.
  • Vital sign monitoring. Advanced systems may be able to measure vital signs, including heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels, and provide valuable insights into the overall health of the person you are supporting. 
  • Waterproof design.  Many devices are designed to be water-resistant, allowing wearers to use them even in the shower or bath without the need for removal, reducing the risk of forgetting to put them back on.

In a recent Forbes health survey of 2,000 U.S. adults, key features for modern medical alert systems were identified, where respondents voted for their preferred functionalities. 

Activity monitoring and medication reminders (49%) emerged as top choices for proactive health management, while GPS or cellular connectivity (44%) was recognized as crucial for 24/7 assistance. Additionally, 43% emphasized the importance of extras like voice-activated buttons and lock boxes for enhanced accessibility in critical moments.


Types of medical alert systems

Numerous medical alert systems cater to unique user requirements. Typically anchored by a compact box that your loved one can conveniently position on a table or nightstand, it takes one press on their wearable to trigger the system.

Although the fundamental principle underpinning the functionality of medical alert systems remains consistent, three distinct types of systems designed to address different situations have emerged:

Landline systems

The first medical alert systems used home setups connected to regular phone lines. They’re still popular among independent, older, or disabled people who want to keep their freedom and feel more comfortable having a landline phone. 

These setups include a central base station at home that connects with wearable pendants or wall buttons. When the subscriber presses the button for help, the components work together to inform the medical alert company's call center.

Mobile systems

Mobile medical alert systems are valued for their adaptability, presenting choices such as standalone mobile devices and wearable call buttons. These systems adapt to homebound seniors or disabled people and active older adults, ensuring a swift method to seek assistance during emergencies. 

GPS devices are pivotal because they use the medical alert company's cellular network or Wi-Fi. While some devices integrate all functions, others feature wearable help buttons. 

For simplicity, a lightweight necklace option guarantees convenient access to the help button without any added gadgets. As an additional layer of security, specific GPS devices provide fall detection, often available for an extra fee.

At-home devices 

These systems suit those with health issues or mobility challenges, whether alone or in-home support. The base station is placed centrally, and the user wears the help button or places it within reach.

You can choose Landline or cellular as your connection options, similar to cell phones. The cellular choice uses the medical alert company's network without a separate cellular plan. The subscriber has to live in an area with good cellular coverage, though.

Advanced at-home systems have features for caregivers, like medication reminders, motion sensors, and monitors for air quality and temperature to prevent issues like carbon monoxide exposure or extreme indoor temperatures.

In-vehicle systems

Recently, in-vehicle systems came onto the market, thanks to one provider. They use a portable device that plugs into a car's 12-volt adapter for power, with a backup battery life if needed.

Like mobile systems, in-vehicle alerts use cellular networks. They have crash detection and GPS for accurate location in emergencies. The devices have a built-in speaker, microphone, and instant-connect button to link to the provider's call center.

The systems can be further categorized into two distinct types: monitored and unmonitored.

Monitored medical alert 

This involves a dedicated monitoring center staffed by agents who actively supervise emergency calls and swiftly evaluate situations. When deemed necessary, they initiate responses, like contacting 911 or designated emergency contacts. 

Monitored systems come with a monthly fee, but they offer a comprehensive range of benefits and features compared to their unmonitored counterparts.

Unmonitored medical alert 

This version doesn’t interface with a monitoring center. Instead, they connect with 911 or predetermined emergency contacts. This system provides a more direct communication path during emergencies.

How to use a medical alert system

Using a medical alert system is a simple process, and all these systems follow a similar procedure.

Step 1: Acquire a medical alert

You have multiple options available to you:

  • Purchase in-store.
  • Place an order over the phone.
  • Order from the company's official website.
  • Explore online marketplaces like Amazon.

Starting with the company's website or contacting them directly is recommended. This way, you learn how to customize a system that meets your needs.

Step 2: Press the help button

A single press of a button initiates a call to a response center. This function is activated whether you're using an in-home console or a mobile device, such as a pendant, wristband, or pocket unit.

Step 3: Engage in two-way communication

Once the call is connected, an operator at the response center engages in a two-way conversation with your loved one. If communication cannot be established or there’s no response, the operator will quickly dispatch local emergency services to the location.

Step 4: Follow the operator’s instructions and  assessment

The operator talks to your loved one to assess their specific needs. Trained to handle various emergencies, operators stay on the line until help arrives.

Step 5: Wait with the operator until help comes

Your loved one and the operator determine the necessary assistance based on the requirements. This might involve contacting someone from your emergency contact list or calling local emergency services.

How do you choose the right medical alert system?

Choosing the appropriate medical alert system calls for a thorough evaluation of the subscriber’s capabilities, both in the present and for the foreseeable future. 

Be sure to keep a few things in mind when you start your quest for a medical alert system:

  • Customer reviews. Assessing a company's reputation involves checking sources like the Better Business Bureau. Reading reviews on platforms like Yelp, Google, and Amazon and seeking input from friends and family using similar systems can provide valuable insights.
  • Warranty and money-back guarantee plans. A strong warranty and money-back guarantee show the company's confidence in its products. Look for warranties that cover equipment costs in case of damage or theft and money-back guarantees for testing the system's suitability.
  • Contractual agreements. Consider drawing up a  contract. Opting for a flexible month-to-month subscription allows adjustments without a long-term commitment.
  • Response time and mobile connectivity. Ensure reliable cell coverage for mobile units in your loved one’s area.
  • In-home range. The in-home unit's range is important. It should cover the entire space for unrestricted access to help.
  • Additional features. These add-on features enhance functionality. Automatic fall detection, GPS-based location, and activity tracking add safety and insights.
  • Companion application. A mobile app is convenient for system management, monitoring, and wellness updates.
  • Thorough research. In-depth research involves comparing equipment components, alert systems costs, and long-term contract details. Equipment range, response time, and signal strength info also give you answers so you find the best-fitting system.

How to get a medical alert system for free

Getting a free or cheaper medical alert system depends on your assets and what your insurance covers:

  • Private insurance. Few plans cover it, but you may get a deduction with a doctor's recommendation.
  • Medicare. Usually not covered by regular Medicare Parts A and B, but Medicare Advantage plans may help.
  • Medicaid. Some medicaid billing programs may cover it for home care or upon leaving a nursing home, based on housing needs.

Pros of a medical alert system

The best medical alert system grants numerous benefits, especially for disabled or elderly people. 

  • 24/7 emergency help: A medical alert device promptly connects your loved one to a live operator at a call center to assist in an emergency around the clock.
  • Quick medical attention: In case of medical emergencies such as heart attacks, strokes, or severe allergic reactions, your loved one needs prompt medical attention. Medical alert systems expedite the response time.
  • Language support: Most systems can provide help in over 100 languages.
  • Location tracking: Mobile devices employ GPS technology to facilitate data transmission and automatically authenticate your location. For users of in-home alert systems, you simply need to provide and verify your address during registration.
  • Diverse features: Medical alert systems promise an array of options, including automatic fall protection, activity tracking, caregiver reports, medication reminders, patient monitoring, and even telehealth services.
  • Mobility: While some devices come with free lockboxes, others offer versatility by accompanying you wherever you go. They’re often waterproof, and clients can use them in the shower, bath, or rainy weather.
  • Independence: For seniors or disabled people who wish to maintain their independence, a medical alert system affords them the confidence to continue living alone, knowing that help is just a click away.
  • Ease of use: Medical alert systems are designed to be accessible to users of varying conditions and technological know-how.
  • Peace of mind: Both you and your loved ones can find comfort in knowing that a personal emergency response system is in place.
  • Affordability: Medical alert systems come in a range of price points. The potential benefits and peace of mind often outweigh the cost of the system.

Cons of having a medical alert system

While medical alerts can provide valuable assistance in emergency situations, don’t gloss over these potential downfalls.

  • User dependency. The device's effectiveness relies on the client’s ability and willingness to take advantage of it. With mobile units, it's essential to keep them charged and consistently wear or carry them.
  • Technological Issues. Technical malfunctions occur.  System outages or connectivity problems could hold up the system's functioning when needed.
  • False alarms. Some medical alert systems can trigger false alarms due to technical glitches or accidental button presses. This leads to unnecessary emergency responses, which might strain emergency services and inconvenience the user and first responders. However, your loved one can easily cancel the call or inform the responding operator of the mistake.
  • Limited range. Home-based systems have a confined range that extends from the base unit to the wearable button. Beyond this range, functionality is compromised. Mobile units only operate where cell coverage is available.
  • Cost. Subscriptions typically range from $30 to $90 per month, occasionally involving extra fees for activation, equipment, optional features, and repairs.
  • Privacy considerations. Since medical alert services involve exchanging data, privacy concerns may be an issue.
  • Stigma and embarrassment. Some may feel ashamed of wearing a medical alert device, especially if it’s associated with aging or health conditions. This might discourage them from using the device even when it could be beneficial.

Ensure the safety of your loved ones at all times

As technology advances, medical alert systems continue to improve lives and healthcare experiences. This article highlights the various options, from wearables to home-based setups with features like fall detection and GPS. It's worth noting that while these systems provide immediate help, they should complement regular medical care rather than replace it.

Now that you have a better understanding of medical alert systems and their role in ensuring the safety of your loved ones consider bookmarking this article for future reference. This way, you'll have a handy guide available whenever you need to choose the right system to protect your family.

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24/7 Safety: A Comprehensive Guide to Medical Alert Systems A medical alert system provides quick assistance to individuals in emergency situations. Learn more about what they are, their features, and how they work.
Devyani Mehta Devyani Mehta is a Content Marketing Specialist at G2. She has worked with several SaaS startups in India, which helped her gain a deep understanding of diverse industries. At G2, Devyani specializes in writing about statistical and regression analysis, development tools like text editors and MBaaS, legal processes such as public records management and enterprise legal management, and medical science topics such as clinical documentation and electronic data capture. When she's not working, Devyani enjoys traveling to new destinations and reading at aesthetically pleasing cafes.

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