While the tag line “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” may have become little more than a pop culture reference, the sentiment behind it is still an important issue for caregivers and their aging loved ones.
The thought of a parent or other relative being unable to contact the outside world during a medical emergency can be very scary, indeed. 24/7 supervision is rarely a workable option, but falls and other accidents can happen at any time of the day or night.
An increasingly popular solution to this dilemma is the medical alert system.
A medical alert system allows clients to live relatively independent lives with the knowledge that help is just one push of a button away.
At BestReviews, we understand that hiring the right medical alert service can provide invaluable peace of mind for clients and their caretakers. Safety and wellbeing are top concerns here, so you shouldn’t leap blindly into a contract with a medical alert service company. Instead, you should make your decision very carefully.
We want to help our readers make this important decision by pointing them in the right direction.
After researching the medical alert service market, we compiled this guide which contains helpful information and considerations to keep in mind when searching for the right company.
Please read on to learn more about how medical alert services work, what they offer, how to avoid scams, and how to get the most out of your investment.
Medical alert service companies are available on the local, regional, and national level. You can find quality service in any of these categories, but if you have any doubt, check your chosen company’s rating with the Better Business Bureau.
Among other things, a medical alert service provides easy access to medical help for individuals – often those who are frail and/or elderly – who are vulnerable in their homes.
Here’s how the process works:
In an emergency, the client uses a wireless call button to activate a base appliance located in his or her home.
The base appliance has been programmed to dial an emergency number at the service provider’s center of operations. When the client presses the button, it does just that.
The call is received by a trained employee who evaluates the situation and either calls emergency responders directly (police, fire, ambulance, etc.) or calls personal contacts on a pre-approved list. The call center is open 24 hours a day.
Some medical alert services remain in communication with the troubled client until help arrives. Others disconnect the call after an appropriate contact is confirmed. Once the situation has stabilized, a representative from the medical alert service will reset the system and log the incident in the client’s personal record.
There is no doubt that emergency medical alert services save thousands of lives every year, but this service is not the ideal solution for everyone. The best candidates generally fit a specific set of criteria.
The best candidates for medical alert services are able to live with minimal supervision.
Many caregivers simply cannot provide 24/7 monitoring for their elderly or infirmed loved ones. If the loved one is capable of performing basic household tasks and personal activities without supervision, he or she would probably benefit from a medical alert call button and monitoring service.
Be sure everyone on the contact list has access to the client’s home and alarm deactivation codes.
The best candidates for medical alert services can communicate effectively.
Many call button/base configurations require two-way communication. The client must be able to hear the responder’s voice, understand the assessment questions, and answer the questions appropriately. It is not essential that a client be able to communicate verbally during an actual emergency, but the process is much easier for all parties when dialogue is established.
The best candidates for medical alert services are capable of activating the system responsibly.
Ideally, a loved one using a medical alert system should have the cognitive ability to remember where the call button is located and what to do if he or she needs help. During an actual emergency, some clients may not be able to think clearly and fail to activate the system.
What is a base? The base is an appliance that can make an emergency call to the monitoring center, where a trained representative responds to the event.
The level of service provided varies from company to company.
The simplest and most common arrangement offered by local, regional, and national medical alert companies consists of a base unit attached to the client’s phone line, at least one emergency call transmitter, and a monthly monitoring service.
However, there are additional services you can sometimes purchase from a medical alert company. These services include the following.
Notably, the services listed below may or may not be applicable to your needs. For this reason, you should ask each company representative for a list of services provided when shopping around.
Some call button units also include a GPS (Global Positioning System) transmitter that automatically sends out a signal to satellite receivers. This information can reveal the location of the client within a few feet, allowing emergency responder to find him or her in an emergency. This is a useful feature for clients with Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive impairments.
Some medical alert companies keep track of a client’s monthly medication schedule and make regular phone calls to ensure compliance. Others may ask clients to perform basic vital statistics tests (blood sugar, blood pressure, weight, etc.) and record the results.
What is an emergency call transmitter? The emergency call transmitter is usually a wearable device such as a watchband, pendant, lanyard, or belt attachment.
Advanced call button units can be synced with special apps to record daily physical activity, including the number of steps taken by the wearer.
If this feature is included in the package, a trained company representative will make regularly scheduled calls to the client to make sure he or she is physically safe. Caretakers who cannot perform these daily check-ins themselves may request this service for peace of mind.
Emergency transmitters can be placed on lanyards, necklaces, watchbands, belts, and other accessories. Finding the most practical or attractive location for individual users should improve compliance.
An increasingly popular service provided by advanced call button units is fall detection – and in some cases, fall prevention.
The fall-detecting mechanism measures the client’s movements and spatial orientation, then activates an alert if there is a sudden change in direction and motion.
In some cases, the mechanism is sensitive enough to anticipate a potential fall and alert the wearer with a special tone.
There are several ways to find the best medical alert service companies in your area. You may wish to begin with an online search for terms such as “medical alert companies”, “PERS” (Personal Emergency Response Services), or “MERS” (Medical Emergency Response Services).
You could also contact your local social service agency. Many of these agencies keep a list of recommended service providers on file.
Many national medical alert companies promote themselves through memorable television advertising, including a toll-free phone number for additional information.
When testing a new transmitter for the first time, activate it from as many remote locations as possible. This includes all bedrooms, bathrooms, the kitchen, the basement, the attic, the yard, and other popular spots.
When it comes time to install a new system, a local and regional service provider may send a customer representative to the client’s home assess his or her needs. The company rep will form an installation and monitoring plan based on those needs, then proceed with setup.
Setup includes installing the electronic base to an existing phone line, testing the call button’s working range, and explaining the entire process to the client and other interested parties.
But this scenario doesn’t apply to every medical alert service provider. In fact, many clients end up taking a DIY approach to the setup of their system. The base unit and call button are shipped as a kit to the home. The kit should include detailed installation instructions and additional connection accessories.
Few medical alert service customers actually own their monitoring equipment. As such, routine maintenance (like battery replacement) can only be performed by the company itself.
Once the base unit is properly connected, the installer can perform several tests with the call button to make sure the range is acceptable. When all of the tests have been performed, the installer contacts the service provider through the base unit and sets the system manually.
Some people feel more comfortable with this DIY approach, while others would prefer to have a company representative visit the house and set up the system.
Before you sign on with a particular company, make sure you understand who will perform the physical setup of the equipment.
There are several out-of-pocket expenses associated with medical alert services, but the most notable expense is the monthly monitoring fee. This fee can vary significantly from company to company, so it pays to shop around.
Generally speaking, a client or caretaker should expect to pay at least $25 or $30 a month for basic monitoring services. A local or regional provider may charge less, but there could be a difference in overall service quality. Many service providers at the national level can arrange for electronic monthly drafts as an easier payment option.
It is possible for clients to purchase new or refurbished base units, call buttons, and phone line adapters outright. But usually, the medical alert company leases or rents this equipment to the customer. The cost of the equipment rental is often included in the monthly service bill. This means that the client is not authorized to make any repairs or modify the equipment in any way. If the unit becomes damaged or defective, the client must ship the old unit to the service provider and install a replacement unit. There may be down time between the shipping of the broken unit and the arrival of a new one, which can be a concern for some caretakers.
If the offerings of a medical alert service company seem too good to be true, they probably are. You should expect to pay a monthly fee for your service in the ballpark of $35. Most clients find this fee to be well worth it.
While fraudulent practices are relatively rare in the medical alert industry, there are some unscrupulous operators who will exploit vulnerable demographics such as the elderly. Here are some common scams and bad practices to be aware of when dealing with unfamiliar medical alert service providers.
Most honest medical alert services offer either month-by-month monitoring services or a very short-term contract following a free trial period. Locking clients into an ironclad, long-term service contract is simply not a good business practice. However, some companies may offer substantial discounts on transmitters and bases in exchange for a long-term service contract. This is not a good deal for customers in the long run.
Many base unit microphones are extremely sensitive, so the responder should be able to communicate with the user from almost every location in the coverage area.
A cold-calling telemarketer informs the potential victim that he or she has qualified for a free medical alert system. In some cases, the victim is told that a generous friend or relative has already paid for the service, and the victim needs only to provide some personal information in order to receive the free base, transmitter, and monthly monitoring service.
In reality, the victim’s personal financial information could be used in an identity theft scam, or the company could demand an unexpected service fee later on. The equipment itself may be broken beyond repair – or it may never arrive at all.
Most legitimate medical alert companies charge a modest monthly fee for monitoring. This fee usually amounts to $35 or so. There are a few companies, however, that will deliberately undercut the going rate in order to poach customers. They may offer a very basic monitoring service for as little as $10 or $15 a month, with a free base and transmitter included.
The savings may appear legitimate, but the quality of the service is not good. The company can legally outsource incoming calls to a third-party call center that may not have the training or staffing to handle actual emergencies. What’s more, the equipment is often shipped “as is,” meaning it would not be replaced or repaired by the company in the event of damage.
Q. My grandmother only speaks Spanish. Will a medical alert service representative be able to communicate with her?
A. This is an important question to ask when researching different medical alert companies. In most (but not all) cases, the answer is yes. The responder should have a notation on a preferred language at the time of the call. Many companies hire bilingual representatives for common languages such as Spanish and French, but you may have to make special arrangements for less-common languages. Even if a language barrier exists, the responders are trained to go through the entire assistance protocol independently.
Q. My mother often forgets to hang up her phone after making a call. Can a medical alert service still receive and act on an emergency signal if the phone is “in service” or disconnected?
A. If the base receiver shares the same landline, the company should still receive an emergency signal from the transmitter. The responder may not be able to return the phone call, but he or she can still go through the rest of the assessment and emergency contact process.
Q. My parents want to move to Florida next year. Can their current medical alert system move with them?
A. This depends largely on the service provider’s policy on transfers. Many national companies do allow clients to set up their existing base receivers and transmitters at a new location. In this scenario, your parents would need to provide an updated contact list and other personal information, but they would not necessarily be required to change account or payment information. Not knowing who your parents are working with, however, it’s important to settle these questions with the company before they move.
Q. I upgraded to a medical alert service with a “fall detector” option. Should I expect more false positives if my mother-in-law just moves the wrong way?
A. Any sudden change in direction or velocity can trigger a typical fall detector, but these devices are usually calibrated to ignore activities such as bending over or lying down. The internal mechanism usually responds to a sudden heavy impact and abrupt change in direction. If the transmitter unit is too sensitive and creates too many false alarms, you should report the problem to the service provider promptly.
Q. My dad’s doctor wants a list of all the dates and times he activated his medical bracelet in the past year. Can a medical alert company provide this information?
A. Under most circumstances, yes. An electronic record is produced every time a client activates the system, and representatives can check these records as part of a broader medical history. There are some privacy laws and policies which may control access to this information, but authorized persons associated with the account should be able to make a formal request.
If you’re considering a partnership with a medical alert service company, you undoubtedly want the best service available for yourself or your loved one. Armed with the knowledge provided in this shopping guide, your search for a good service should be easier. Ask as many questions as needed to find the best service, and you will enjoy greater peace of mind once the medical alert service is in place.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.