How to Choose the Right Medical Alert System
What Is a Medical Alert System?
Medical alert systems, also known as personal emergency response systems, offer a fast and easy way for the elderly, people with health issues, and those who live alone, to get help during an emergency, whether it be a medical issue, a fall, a fire, or any event that requires an immediate response. In a nutshell, these systems contain a help button that dials up an emergency response center and connects you to a live agent.
The most basic systems use a landline and consist of a base unit and a portable help button you can wear around the house, but there are cellular options and GPS-based mobile solutions for people on the go, as well as options that automatically send an alarm when a fall is detected. Some services will even call you to remind you to take your medications. Read on to see what kinds of medical alert systems are available, and how much you can expect to pay for the service.
What Equipment Is Required?
The most basic medical alert systems use a landline telephone connection and consist of a base unit and a portable help button. They are incredibly easy to install; simply plug the unit into your phone jack using the included phone cord, and plug your phone into the secondary jack on the unit. Plug in the power cord and wait a few seconds while the system starts up, and when the LED indicator turns green, you are good to go. It’s a good idea (and encouraged by providers) to run a test by pressing the help button on the base unit to make sure everything is working. When you are connected to an agent, simply tell him/her that you are conducting a test. They will verify your name and make sure everything is OK.
The base unit looks somewhat like a speakerphone and actually pulls double duty as one, but its main purpose is to connect you to a live emergency response agent without having to pick up a phone. It has a clearly marked help or emergency button, which is usually (but not always) colored red and is the largest, most easy-to-reach button on the unit. It also has a speaker and an embedded microphone for two-way hands-free communication, an LED status indicator, and a reset button that can provide several functions depending on the system.
On some systems pressing the reset button will completely cancel the call to the response center, while on other systems it will silence the beeping alarm but won’t cancel the call, which means you’ll still have to speak to an agent to tell them that everything is OK. It may also be used by emergency responders to let the response center know that help has arrived. Make sure your base unit has a built-in battery backup that will allow it to operate in the event of a power outage.
The portable help button can be worn as a pendant necklace or on your wrist like a watch. It is designed for use inside and around the home, although there are mobile buttons with embedded GPS technology available that you can travel with. If you are in the house or in your backyard and need assistance, just press the pendant/wristband button to initiate a call to the response center. If you can’t get close enough to the base unit to respond to the agent, the agent will try calling people on your contact list before calling 911.
Portable help buttons are almost always waterproof and can be worn in the shower, and they can communicate with the base unit at distances up to 1,500 feet. You should test your help pendant by pressing the button from various locations in your house and yard so you’ll know what kind of range to expect.
A fall-detection pendant does everything that a regular help button pendant does, but has built-in sensors that can detect if you’ve taken a spill, at which point it will initiate a call to the response center. They usually require an additional monthly fee.
In-Home vs. Mobile Medical Alert Systems
In-home systems are ideal for people who rarely leave the house, but if you maintain an active lifestyle, consider a mobile medical alert system. Mobile systems go with you when you leave the house, and use GPS technology to pinpoint your exact location and cellular technology to connect you to a response center. We list both in-home and mobile systems in the chart above.
Mobile models are usually a bit larger and heavier than a standard portable help button, but are still small enough to be worn comfortably as a pendant. They contain a help button that initiates a call to the response center, and a speaker and microphone for two-way communication. Mobile pendants are powered by rechargeable batteries and can be ordered with a fall-detection sensor for an additional monthly fee.
If you don’t have a landline or simply don’t want to use it for a medical alert system, you can order a base unit with built-in cellular circuitry, but subscriptions for these systems typically cost more than landline systems. You don’t have to subscribe to a cellular service provider, as that cost that is built into your subscription and handled by the medical alert service provider. As with landline systems, cellular systems are very easy to install; just plug them in, wait for the LED light to glow green, and test out the system as mentioned above.
There are even specialized mobile systems, such as the Bay Alarm Medical Splitsecnd In-Car Medical Alert. It plugs into your car to give you one-touch access to a live emergency response agent. It also has crash detection and GPS so emergency responders can locate you even if you’re unable to tell them where you are.
How Medical Alert Systems Work
To call for help, simply press the help button on the base unit or your wearable device. The base unit will automatically dial up the response center associated with your medical alert service provider, at which point you’ll hear a series of loud beeps while the unit attempts to connect with the response center. After around 20 to 40 seconds, a live agent will answer the call and ask if everything is alright. The base unit acts as a hands-free speakerphone so all you have to do is tell the agent what your situation is and request help, or let them know that you are just testing your system or pressed a button by mistake.
If you request help, the agent will call 911 and have an emergency responder dispatched to your address. If you are unable to answer, the agent will begin calling the numbers on your contact list, which is usually filled out on a mail-in form or online. If the agent can’t reach anybody on the list, they will then contact 911. Many services request that you include medical information when you fill out the initial contact form, including things like existing conditions, medications, physician contacts, and allergies. This information goes into your personal database and is relayed to emergency responders.
What Are the Monthly Fees for Medical Alert Systems?
Most medical alert systems offer no-contract monthly subscriptions, but there are some that require a multi-year commitment. A landline-based in-home system can range in price from around $25 up to $35 per month, and includes everything you need to get up and running in minutes. Cellular in-home subscriptions are a bit more expensive; expect to pay anywhere from $35 to $45 per month. Mobile systems can run as high as $65 to $75 dollars per month, and some services may require a one-time mobile device fee of up to $150 upfront. Regardless of the type of system you need, look for a company that offers a discount for committing to a quarterly or annual payment plan.
Most medical alert services will not charge extra for monitoring for a spouse, but in most cases you’ll have to pay an additional monthly fee for a second help pendant. Some services also offer daily wellness checks where an agent will call in at a specified time to make sure everything is OK and remind you to take your medications.
Medical Alert Accessories
If you live in a very large home with lots of backyard real estate, you may want to look into a service that offers a long-range pendant. Wireless wall-mounted help buttons are another common accessory that you can place around your home to expand coverage.
Finally, consider using a lockbox accessory that you hang on your outer doorknob. The box has a compartment where you stash a house key and is opened using a combination. When help is dispatched, the response center gives the combination to the emergency responders, allowing them to enter your home using the key rather than breaking down the door if you are unable to open it for them.
Where To Buy
Bay Alarm Medical In-Home Medical Alert
Pros: Easy to install.
Long-range help pendant.
Cons: Additional spouse pendant costs extra.
Small reset button.
Bottom Line: Bay Alarm Medical’s In-Home Medical Alert system is easy to install and offers speedy response times, loud and clear hands-free communications, and good pendant range.
Bay Alarm Medical Splitsecnd In-Car Medical Alert
Pros: Easy to install and use.
Web and mobile tracking app.
Uses GPS, cellular, and crash detection technologies.
Fast response times.
Bottom Line: The Bay Alarm Medical Splitsecnd In-Car Medical Alert plugs into your car to give you one-touch access to a live emergency response agent.
It also has crash detection and GPS so emergency responders can locate you even if you’re unable to tell them where you are.
Great Call Lively Mobile Plus
Pros: Reasonably priced
Fast response times
Small, lightweight design
Excellent mobile app and urgent care services available
Cons: Mobile app costs extra
Bottom Line: The Great Call Lively Mobile Plus is a wearable medical alert system that will connect you to an emergency response agent with the touch of a button.
LifeFone At Home Landline Medical Alert System
Pros: Simple setup.
Free spouse pendant.
Daily wellness calls and medicine reminder services available.
Loud two-way audio.
Cons: Pendant has limited outdoor range.
Bottom Line: The LifeFone At Home Landline is a user-friendly medical alert system that offers a handful of useful services and delivers loud two-way hands-free communications with the response center, but its portable help button showed limited range in our tests.
Medical Guardian Freedom Guardian
Pros: Fast response times in testing.
GPS and Wi-Fi tracking.
Messaging and calendar alerts.
Mobile and web companion apps.
Cons: No fall detection.
Pricey subscription fees.
Bottom Line: The Medical Guardian Freedom Guardian smartwatch has a dedicated Help button and works with mobile and web apps that allow family and caregivers to monitor your location and send text messages and calendar reminders.
Pros: Quick response times.
Easy to install.
Large, colorful buttons.
Medical reminder services available.
Free web and mobile apps.
Cons: Can’t dim backlit buttons.
Bottom Line: The MobileHelp Classic is a comprehensive in-home medical alert system that uses cellular technology to connect you to a 24/7 emergency response center with the press of a button.
Philips Lifeline GoSafe 2
Pros: Clean audio quality.
Good response times.
Uses multiple locating technologies.
Price includes fall detection.
No tracking portal or mobile app.
No extra client services.
Bottom Line: The Philips Lifeline GoSafe 2 is a portable medical alert system that uses several locating technologies, including Wi-Fi, GPS, and audio beaconing, to pinpoint your location.
LifeStation Premium Mobile
Pros: Long battery life.
Clear two-way audio.
Good response times.
Cons: Lacks tracking app.
No additional services.
Bottom Line: The LifeStation Premium Mobile is a portable medical alert device that has five-day battery life and provides reasonably good response times with clean two-way audio.
More Inside PCMag.com
About the Author