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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and all opinions about the products are our own. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Buying guide for best medical alert systems

Providing around-the-clock supervision for an ailing or aging loved one can drain a caregiver financially, emotionally, and physically. For this reason, many people consider installing a medical alert system to give loved ones immediate access to first responders in an emergency.

A medical alert system consists of a base unit, a two-way communication system, and an emergency call button or pendant. One push of a button activates a direct call to a response center, first responder, or designated caregiver. The loved one can then provide information about their emergency, and the appropriate responders can dispatch promptly.

Finding the right medical alert system can be a matter of comparing services among providers or getting recommendations from others who have already set up their own accounts. Local first responders may also have preferences based on their professional experiences. The key is to find a provider with reliable equipment and good customer service.

medical alert system
Some medical alert systems have the ability to create established boundaries, like the user’s property line. Any unexpected line crossing would then be detected and reported. This is a good feature for patients with cognitive issues, such as Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia.

How medical alert systems work

Many medical alert systems work on a subscription basis. The subscriber pays monthly or annual fees that cover the cost of a link to a dedicated response center or a designated caregiver, such as a relative or neighbor. A service contract may or may not be required.

Benefits of a medical alert system

Before investing in a medical alert system, it helps to consider the possible benefits for patients and caregivers. For example, a good system can allow a senior to live as independently as possible while benefiting from connectedness to emergency services.

Instant access to emergency services

A medical alert system provides instant access to emergency services without the need for 24-hour surveillance. Caregivers benefit from knowing that a professional monitoring service will help detect falls and other medical emergencies, dispatching first responders automatically.

GPS technology

Some medical alert systems incorporate GPS technology. They may alert the caregiver when the user has left a predefined area or has removed their alert button, wristband, or pendant. This information is vital for a caregiver who does not want to lose contact with the wearer.

Some medical alert systems send a signal to caregivers if the user steps out of a designated boundary or removes the call button completely.

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Level of service

Basic pager system

A basic nurse call button pager system does not require monitoring fees and can be set up in minutes. However, it will only alert a caregiver within a limited range. If you’re a caregiver with a live-in patient, this may be all that is required for your peace of mind.

Unmonitored system

The next level up is an unmonitored system. The base unit is programmed to call designated numbers for caregivers, neighbors, or first responders. However, it does not communicate with a third-party monitoring service.

There are usually no fees associated with an unmonitored system, but caregivers on the contact list need to be available for emergency calls.

Fully monitored call station

The highest level of service is a fully monitored call station. When the alert button is activated or a fall sensor detects unexpected movement, a call is immediately placed to a call center with trained responders. The responders assess the situation, contact caregivers, speak directly with the victim, and call first responders if necessary.

This level of service generally requires a monthly service fee and possibly a long-term service contract. However, some companies offer month-to-month service.

Range

An important consideration with a medical alert system is its range of service.

I often place the base unit in a centralized location with a dedicated DSL landline or wireless phone connection. That said, an emergency could occur anywhere: upstairs bedroom, basement laundry room, remote kitchen. The call button or pendant should be powerful enough to contact the base unit from anywhere in the home.

Many systems boast a range of 600 feet or more. For the average home, this may be enough.

During the set-up phase, the range of a call button can usually be tested by activating it from different rooms and listening for a confirmation tone on the base. Any locations that do not interact with the base should be noted, such as a garden shed or mailbox.

medical alert system
DID YOU KNOW?
Some medical alert systems can detect environmental hazards, such as a high carbon monoxide level or smoke.
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Power source

A medical alert system should ideally provide steady protection around the clock. However, electrical outages and loss of phone service can and do happen.

In the event of a power outage, some basic pager systems may become inoperable until power is restored. More advanced systems incorporate battery back-ups.

A base unit may be hardwired into the household electric system, or it may be plugged into an AC socket. Some manufacturers allow users to access and replace the batteries, but others require the user to ship back the entire unit once a replacement unit has been delivered.

Call buttons and pendants

While the base unit of a medical alert system includes an oversized “panic” button for immediate service, the essential purpose of the system is to encourage independent living. The user can activate the system remotely using a number of different call buttons.

Bracelet: One style of call button resembles a bracelet or FitBit, which the user can wear comfortably from room to room or even in the shower.

Keychain/lanyard: Another type of call button fits on a keychain or lanyard and can also be carried in a pocket or purse. This type of call button can easily become lost. Attaching an electronic finder tag or ordering additional call buttons would be a good idea for caregivers.

Pendant: For fall detection, a pendant worn around the neck contains a sensor that activates when the wearer rapidly goes from a vertical position to a horizontal position. The larger pendant can also include a remote two-way phone system for direct communication with a monitoring station or caregiver.

GPS technology: Some medical alert systems have call buttons equipped with GPS technology. This allows users the freedom to travel or take a walk while maintaining a connection with their caregiver and monitoring service. Should a medical emergency arise, first responders can locate the victim electronically, or at least determine the last known coordinates.

A medical alert system microphone is designed to be extremely sensitive, allowing trained responders to detect signs of life and communicate with the victim from a distance.

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How much does a medical alert system cost?

The retail price of a medical alert system is often limited to the unit itself. Bear in mind that additional monitoring fees may be required.

Inexpensive

For $30 or less, you can find a basic wireless paging system that alerts an on-site caregiver at the push of a button. These pagers are not designed to contact a monitoring station or call designated numbers. The caregiver must be within range of the pager.

MId-range

Medical alert systems in the $40 to $100 range generally provide a landline or wireless phone connection through a base with a battery back-up. A monitoring service will handle the initial call and will then contact the caregiver or first responders. Monitoring fees may be involved.

Expensive

High-end medical alert systems offer all of the services of mid-range models as well as additional features, such as multiple call stations, extra call buttons, and GPS locators. The wearer may be able to answer incoming phone calls through the call button or pendant.

For customers who invest in these higher-end systems, some providers waive monitoring fees.

Tips

  • Routinely update the list of emergency contacts. The goal is to make sure everyone on the list can still respond to an emergency call.
  • Check with local first responders (police, fire, ambulance) to make sure the address provided by the medical alert system company matches their own dispatch records.
  • Ask about a company’s “false alarm” policy before signing a service contract. Some service providers can legally charge for excessive false alarms.
  • Find out what happens when the batteries get low. Some emergency alert systems use closed power systems. This means the entire unit will need to be replaced when the batteries get low.
medical alert system
A number of medical alert system service providers schedule daily check-in calls with clients to assess the current conditions.

FAQ

Q. How does a medical alert system detect a fall?

A. Some medical alert systems do not detect falls at all. Rather, they rely on the victim or a caregiver to activate the call button manually.

Other systems have a sensor that detects any sudden changes from vertical to horizontal positioning. This feature generally does not react to normal positional changes (from standing to sleeping, for instance), but a rapid change will automatically initiate an emergency call.

Q. Should I test the emergency call button on a regular basis?

A. During the setup process, you should be able to test the range of the call device without connecting to the call center. In so doing, you can identify any “dead spots” where service would be unavailable.

You can also test the active system from time to time by activating the call button and informing the call center that you were just testing the connection. Notably, you may have to use a verbal or numeric code to validate the test.

Q. Will a medical alert system stay in continuous contact during an emergency?

A. It depends on the individual system’s design. Many medical alert systems maintain an open line during a call, especially when the victim has not responded verbally. Callers provide additional information or updates, and the company representative takes further action if necessary.

 

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