Medical alert systems are simple, easily accessible devices that can make a world of difference in a medical emergency. Whether you are a senior looking for extra security, a family member concerned about an older or disabled adult living alone, or a chronically ill individual wishing to give your family some peace of mind, you can benefit from considering a personal emergency response system.
A medical alert system comprises a base station, typically connected to a phone line, along with an emergency pendant that you wear at all times. The base station stays in the same place in your home, preferably within range of where you are most of the day. You wear the pendant either on your wrist or around your neck, wherever it's most comfortable and easily accessible for you.
In an emergency, you or your loved one presses the button on the pendant, which sends a call through the base station to the system’s monitoring center. One of the center's staff will answer the call and, using the pendant’s speakerphone, ask if you need help. If you do need help or can't answer, the staff will either contact your emergency contacts, such as family members or neighbors, to have them come to check on you, or will alert emergency medical personnel to go to your home.
It’s easy to try out a medical-alert system without commitment. When you purchase a medical alert system, you’re actually buying the service. Equipment is included at no additional charge, and there’s typically no delivery or activation fees, or cancellation charges should you discontinue service. With almost all systems, installation comprises of simply connecting the base unit’s power cord to an outlet and its phone cord to an available phone jack.
We omitted from our lineup one service that departed from these norms. Life Alert requires an installation fee to cover activation and a technician who must come install and program the system, along with a minimum three-year contract commitment. There are only two ways to break out of the contract early should you choose the service: either the loved one using the system passes away, or he or she moves permanently to a long-term care facility. Both instances must be confirmed by a technician before the contract is ended.
To provide the fairest comparison between services, we evaluated each using their lowest-cost base station and service, which cost you about $30 a month with most systems. However, with all services we evaluated, you can elect to pay more each month to get enhanced equipment or service.
We describe some of those upgrades below and detail which systems offer them in our comparison chart. However, with two of those enhancements, we’ve created separate review lineups that include still-more companies that provide systems with those special features. Systems with fall detection promise to automatically alert responders if the wearer falls—a plus should they then be incapacitated—while systems with GPS capability promise coverage even when the wearer roams out of range of the base station.
Two key attributes of medical alert systems is the maximum distance from the base station at which the pendant reliably activates the base station, and how long the station’s built-in backup battery can keep the unit running in the event of a power outage. Manufacturers provide their own specifications on both, but we carried out our own tests to assess the reliability of that data.
The companies’ methods to determine their advertised ranges varies; sometimes, advertised ranges are based on a setup where there are limited obstacles, such as walls, that may interfere with signals and therefore reduce performance. To test the accuracy of those figures, we conducted a maximum-range test in an empty field devoid of obstacles. We used the system at progressive distances between the pendant and base station, until activating the pendant no longer reliably sent a signal to the station. The results of those tests: Our figures were sometimes higher than those provided by the manufacturers, with several pendants transmitting as much as twice as far as the advertised figure.
Within your home, you can expect a lower range, which our second batch of tests confirmed. We repeated the range tests in an actual home environment with brick walls (which provide greater interference than the wood and drywall construction of many homes). Unsurprisingly, the measured ranges were significantly lower—about one third of the open-range distances on average. Those systems with the longest indoor tested ranges offer the greatest likelihood, and greatest reassurance, that an alert would get through from even a distant and obstructed area of your home.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained all the units in our comparison on loan from the companies, which activated the base stations and pendants in their customary manner. The companies had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
While our tested attributes should be leading considerations in buying a system, other features and capabilities should figure in your choice. These additional features are reflected in our scores, recommendations and articles about Medical Alert Systems. Here’s a rundown of some of the most important, with a key question for each:
Monitoring Services: Is Multilingual Service Important to You?
All systems we evaluated offer 24/7 monitoring service – as in they each have staffers around the clock who can respond to alerts. Not all, however, offer the option to provide a translation service should you or your family member use a primary language other than English. Such services all offer support in 150 or more languages. Note, though, that if the monitoring center does not have on staff representatives who speak the language you need, such services usually require the additional time for the translator to take the user’s comments and translate them for monitoring center representatives, so it’s best to have the user speak English if they have sufficient facility to do so. If multilingual service is important to you, before you commit to a company, make sure it's aware of your language requirements, and note them on your profile, so your user can be connected to a translator as rapidly as possible.
Premium Features: Are Fall Detection and GPS Capability Worth More To You?
The now-trademarked advertising tagline “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” reflects the fact that fear of falls are generally the most common reason families consider getting a medical alert system. Yet a typical system relies on the fallen user being able to press the pendant for help. The wearer may not be able to press the pendant in the case of a serious fall, which might originate from a debilitating medical event, such as a heart attack or stroke, or which may lead to unconsciousness.
Around half of the systems we evaluated offer a feature that promises to automatically alert responders when the pendant wearer falls. With these systems, technology inside the pendant detects that a fall has occurred and immediately sends a signal to the base station. Companies either offer this feature as a package upgrade or as an add-on accessory for a minimal additional monthly fee. Life Alert, which owns the trademark for the “fallen” tagline, is not among the companies that offer fall detection. We didn’t include it in our lineup, for other reasons we noted above.
While this feature is a great benefit to ensure that you or your loved one can get immediate help during a fall, don’t depend on fall detection as a failsafe feature; the technology does not pick up 100% of falls. You can learn more about fall detection by reading our article about "Medical Alert Systems with Fall Detection."
If the system’s user sometimes ventures away from home unaccompanied, you may also want to consider an upgraded medical alert system that has GPS capability. Companies offer these systems either as part of package upgrades alongside a base station unit or as separate packages that work without the need of a base station. Such systems use a combination of cellular and GPS technology to send calls to a monitoring center where they can determine your location to send emergency services. For active seniors or disabled family members who don't want to be limited to their homes, these systems can give you and your family the reassurance that if anything happens, the people you care about can always get help.
Our comparison chart details other possible upgrades. These include cellular-only service, for homes that do not have landline service. You can also opt to add a lockbox; you keep this accessory outside near your front door with a key to your house locked inside behind a code. When you call for help from the medical monitoring center, the representative can give the code to the lockbox to your emergency contacts or emergency personnel. This lets them get the house key so they can get into the house easily in case you aren't able to let them in.
We also details differences in Help and Support for the systems; the main differences are in whether you can access assistance via e-mail and chat rather than by phone support, which all services offer.
Three medical alert systems – Medical Guardian, our Gold Award winner; LifeFone, our Silver Award Winner; and Bay Alarm Medical, our Bronze Award Winner – rose above the rest in our comparison, mostly due to their superior performance in operating range of run times – the factors we weighted most heavily in our rankings. No other systems offered as long an operating range in our simulated home environment. Medical Guardian edges out the other two with the longest range overall.
At least one other lower-ranked system merits consideration. If style counts with you, and you want to save a few dollars a month over the top-ranked services, consider Care Innovations Link. It’s a newer med alert system by Intel-GE Care Innovations, a joint company between Intel and General Electric, two leading companies in appliances and technology.
The Care Innovations unit stands out with its base station design. Rather than the typical white- or cream-colored units of most services, the Care Innovations Link base station is a thin black box that can blend in with most appliances, such as an alarm clock or entertainment system. The company also offers a separate GPS-capable unit with different package options if GPS mobility is important to you.