What Are Medical Alert Systems ?

by | Beginners Info, Medical Alert Systems, Safety

Now that my mother has turned a sprightly 90 yrs old and  is still trying to get into trouble, I decided to do some research into what are medical alert systems, who benefits from having them and why we may wish to have one.

What are medical alert systems ? Medical alert systems are designed to detect users in need of urgent medical care, and to then to call and alert emergency medical personnel, or family and caregivers to those emergencies.

Medical alert systems are also very commonly known a “Personal Emergency Response Systems” or “PERS”

Depending on the functioning of the system, and the level of emergency, family members and caregivers may also be alerted and sent to the location of the person using the system.

There are two distinct types of medical alert system –

  • Monitored Medical Alert Systems – will call 24/7 monitoring centers with an emergency alert, and connect with qualified operators who will assess the gravity of the call and then dispatch the appropriate emergency response personnel to the location of the user if it is very serious. If it is less serious, the operator will contact a caregiver, or family member to go to the location of the user to give help. The user will choose who they wish to have on their list of selected helpers, along with the emergency services, when they sign up for a system.
  • Unmonitored Medical Alert Systems – are not connected to a 24/7 monitoring centers but will call selected family members, caregivers, or 911. As there is no operator to evaluate the level of the emergency the devices will simply call the telephone numbers of the contacts that your loved one has selected as helpers when they set up the system. This can be family, friends, caregivers etc and also if you wish, the emergency services. The numbers are just added to the system at set up. If it is family members or caregivers, the systems usually call through the numbers on a rotation until one finally responds.

In the longterm unmonitored medical alert systems are far cheaper, but you are left to assess and make the decisions, and you may not have either the qualifications or the skill set to do so.

Obviously, not everyone can afford a monthly subscription for a monitored medical alert system and the unmonitored is far better than nothing. You just have to make sure that the selected contacts are committed to answering the phone in an emergency, and consequently, running to the aid of their loved one if need be. You will be on call all the time

And of course not everyone is comfortable with some strange person from the ERS bursting into their home in an emergency to help them. Your parents may well prefer the face of someone they know. For someone with dementia it may be far less frightening to have friends and family on call. These are all things which will need to be considered when choosing a medical alert system.

You also need to think about what the state of your loved ones mind may be in a year or so, as you don’t want to have to be changing systems all the time.

Fall Detection –

Some pendants and call buttons have the capability to detect a sudden movement or fall. The device will send an automatic alert to the monitoring center in the event of the wearer having a sudden fall, or if it is an unmonitored device to the ERS or to the selected contacts who have been put into the system by the user. In general, if a monitoring center cannot establish verbal contact with the wearer, the emergency services will be dispatched to their location immediately.

Fall detection can be used with both the in-home systems and the mobile systems, but it is by no means guaranteed to be included in the basic subscription. Most companies who offer it, only do so as an added extra, at an added cost.

A word of warning also that no company guarantees that their fall detector works 100% of the time.

I don’t know about you, but for me Fall Detection is a must.

If you want to find out more about Fall Detection systems, I have an article just on that, and just how reliable most of them actually are – What is a fall detector ?

What is difference between the in-home and the mobile medical alert systems ?

In-Home Medical Alert Systems

Traditionally medical alert systems have been just for the home, and a small area of garden around the home. When first invented, around 40 yrs ago, medical alert systems comprised just a base station and a call button.

These systems are referred to as In-Home Medical Alert Systems.

At first, the in-home systems used the telephone landline to call the monitoring centers when they received a signal from any of the “Help” buttons in the system. With the advent of cellular/mobile phones the in-home systems can now also be run on a cellular/mobile network. 

I would point out here that there can be problems associated with this if the cellular/mobile phone network signal is not adequate. So I would always thoroughly check the signal strength all around your house and in the garden etc as soon as you get your medical alert system, just to make sure it’s strong enough – you usually have a 30 day money-back guarantee so I’d get it checked quickly.

You don’t want to find in an emergency that you have no signal !

Mobile Medical Alert Systems

With the development of cellular/mobile phone networks and Wi Fi, Medical Alert Systems, as well as offering in-home systems, were able to offer mobile alert systems for people who were more active, and needed a system which works both inside and outside of the home.

Mobile medical alert systems have the range of the cellular/mobile network itself. So long as you have good network reception, wherever you go it works fine.

Some mobile systems have a mobile device with a call button and a microphone which you carry with you wherever you go – they may be worn around the neck as a pendant or with a wrist strap.

Other mobile systems are a cellular/mobile phone and alert device combined.

I was a little surprised to find that all mobile medical alert systems don’t come with automatic fall detection in the basic plan – and some don’t even have it !

So be sure to check that if you want it .

In the article “Do medical alert systems work outside of the house ?” you will find more information on mobile medical alerts systems, and the names of the more popular systems in the US and in the UK. You can read that here.

Added Extras

As well as the development of mobile medical alert systems, there have been two major enhancements to the systems –

  •  Fall Detection
  • GPS Tracking and location Technologies

GPS Tracking and Location Technologies –

In recent years there have been lots advances with GPS and Wi Fi technologies, which have meant that many mobile medical alert systems can now track the location of a wearer through their mobile device.

In the event of an emergency a wearer’s device can be tracked to within 15 meters. That information will be given by the monitoring center to the emergency response authorities if it is a monitored system. If you are using an unmonitored system the contacts will usually be sent a text with the location.

The exact systems used may vary according to the companies. I found they use a mix of Wi Fi router points and GPS satellite tracking systems to locate a wearer who may be unable to communicate, or who may have become disorientated, and is unable to give the information themselves.

Again, I noticed that not all systems may have this as part of the basic plan, so you need to check and see if it is included, or comes at an extra cost. It is pretty crucial if your parent goes hiking !! I think a parent lost at the shopping mall may be a bit easier to locate though!

How do the different types of Medical Alert Systems work ? Here’s what I discovered –

In-Home Medical Alert Systems –

Generally, the in-home systems are comprised of

  • a Base Station – a central unit with powerful speakers and a microphone which is attached to the phone landline, or linked to the cellular/mobile network. The Base Station will make the call to the medical alert monitoring center when a “Help” button is pressed. Most Base Stations have a “Help” button located on them, as well as those buttons on pendants which may be worn by the user.
  • a wrist band or pendant with a “Help” button. These are to be worn around the home. In the event of an emergency, the wearer can simply press the button to be connected through the Base Station to the monitoring center.

In the event of an emergency the user either presses on the “Help” button on their Base Station, or on their wrist band or pendant.

The system only works if you wear the devices, or use the “Help” button on the Base Station, so if elderly parents don’t wear them, it won’t work unless they are right next to the Base Station and can push that “Help” button

If the system is monitored

The “Help” button, when pressed, sends the signal to the Base Station which then calls the 24 hour medical alert monitoring center via the phone line .

The user then talks with an agent at the monitoring center who will assess the nature of the emergency, and decide on an appropriate response. This can be anything from sending the emergency services to the user’s home, to just calling a family member of the user, or their caregiver.

If the wearer cannot communicate most companies will immediately send the emergency services to the wearers location.

The monitoring centers for the different medical alert systems providers will have set up the wearer’s “preferred contacts” when the system was initiated. As such, when an alert is signaled the monitoring center may, after the consultation, contact a family member or caregiver to let them know the user needs assistance, rather than the emergency services if they are not needed.

If the monitoring center operator cannot hear, or speak with, the wearer the emergency services are automatically sent.

Obviously the services differ with the various providers, and also the range of add-ons available varies greatly. But all providers have a base station and pendants with call buttons linked to a 24 hr medical alert monitoring center.

The huge advantage with the 24/7 monitored systems is that, if a person has an emergency there is always an operator who gets the emergency alert and who will send the emergency services. The response time for the operators to pick up the calls in general should be very quick – at most several minutes.

This will not be the case with unmonitored systems where the system just keeps dialing through the list of chosen contacts phone numbers until one of them picks up, and there is no way of knowing how long that could be. In an emergency this is not ideal.

If the system is unmonitored

The “Help” buttons all operate in the same ways as for the monitored systems, except instead of initiating a call through to a 24/7 monitoring center, the system automatically dials through a list of phone numbers of preferred contacts – usually caretakers and family members – until one of them responds.

Usually it is a pre-recorded message telling them that the wearer is having an emergency. The contact will then have to go and investigate. All of this can take considerably more time than it will take with the monitored services.

It is also possible to have the systems dial the emergency services, but this may result in them being called to non-emergency situations, simply as the result of none of the other contact numbers answering their phones.

Mobile Medical Alert Systems –

Mobile alert handheld devices and pendants

These mobile medical alert systems don’t generally have a Base Station like the in-home systems, as they connect directly with the cellular/mobile phone networks and can be used anywhere that there is a signal.

The mobile system usually comprises of –

  • a charging dock – this is simply a charger where the device will be recharged as required
  • a hand held, or worn device, with a “Help” button and incorporated microphone and speakers,
  •  some systems also give an additional pendant with a call button which you can wear, and if you can’t reach the hand held device you just push the button on the pendant which will send a signal to your mobile device which will then make the alert call
  • most of these devices have GPS location tracking
  • some come with Fall Detection as part of the package, or as an add-on

If the system is monitored

The different devices on the monitored systems do vary from cellular/mobile phones which are also medical alert devices, to devices which are strictly mobile devices, and then smartwatch type devices.

With the monitored services you can, in general, actually speak into the different devices as they have speakers and microphones. And in the event of an emergency you will, if able, speak with the operator at the monitoring center through the device.

If you can’t speak the operator will simply send the emergency services to your location. This may also be the case if you can’t reached your mobile device after your fall, but you have a wristband which will signal the mobile device to make the alert call.

If the system is unmonitored

With the unmonitored systems the mobile devices are far less varied than the monitored systems.

The devices will be paired with an app for smartphones and the whole system will run through the app. Using the app you will set up your preferred contacts and their telephone numbers to be called in an emergency.

Not all of the unmonitored devices will allow you to talk through them when you have a medical alert, and may simply send a text, or automated voice message to your selected contacts with the alert.

The message will contain your GPS location and say you have an emergency.

The devices will be paired with an app for smartphones and the whole system will run through the app.

The devices which have speakers and a microphone will allow you to talk to your contact when they pick up their phone.

As with the home system you will have to hope that your contacts answer and pick up quickly. The device will cycle through the contact numbers until someone answers.

What are some of the latest innovations I found in medical alert systems

A number of the medical alert systems have started to add new features to their product ranges in the form of add-ons –

  • quite a few companies are adding apps which allow the caregivers and family members access to different types of data concerning the person wearing the medical alert devices. 
  • some systems are providing tablets on which caregivers and users can check on the activities and  reminders for medications, or play cognitive games
  • other companies are adding sensors to their devices which monitor vital signs – blood oxygen levels, heartbeat, blood glucose levels and weight
  • with GPS tracking, some companies are also letting family members and caregivers know when their elderly parents have gone out, see where they are, and to keep track of their activities in general

Be warned that these add-ons come at a price, so do check carefully when you are looking to buy a system and see what’s included the basic product.

Most of these innovations were only available on the the monitored systems.

If you are interested in finding out about activity monitoring systems  as well as medical alert systems the you may be ineterested in my mammoth article (I worked on it for weeks to find the most dependable systems availabe today)  – “Monitoring aging parents from afar: a helpful guide to 40+ systems” .

You may also like to read another long article on using video surveillance cameras as a way of monitoring your parents’ activity and safety – “Video surveillance for elderly monitoringand safety: a helpful survey”.

Here are some popular medical alert systems in the US –

MobileHelp

GreatCall

Bay Alarm Medical

Medical Guardian

Medical Alert

Philips Lifeline

Life Station

Life Fone

LogicMark

321 Medical Alert

LifeLink

LifeLink Response

 

And in the Uk –

Saga

SureSafe

Lifeline 24

Telecare 24

Helpline

Monitor Go

PPP

Bosch Carephone 62

TechSilver

AgeUK

So what are the “must have features” of a medical alert system ?

Here’s a list of the essential features that I think you should be looking for in a medical alert system

  • Waterproof  – so it can be worn at all times
  • If it’s an in-home system you want ot have a good range for when you may be in the garden
  • You will want to get pendants with very long battery live – some systems have lives of 5 yrs before they need replacing
  • You want to have the choice of both a wrist band and a pendant
  • The devices must be comfortable and lightweight if they are to be worn
  • If you buy a system with a base station, it must have adequately strong speakers and microphone so you can be heard from all parts of your home
  • If you are using the cellular/mobile network the system must have an adequately strong signal in your area, and good coverage everywhere you intend to use it – even if it is just for your home I would think you will need to check with the network provider
  • Make sure that the system has a Money Back Guarantee incase you are not happy – most companies give a 30 day Money Back Guarantee, but do check – so many provide this I wouldn’t waste my time on one that doesn’t
  • Check that devices which need to be charged don’t take too long to charge, and that they have at least a 12- 16hr battery life when they are on standby
  • Check that any charging stations or base stations work for at least 24hrs in the case of a power failure

What mistakes to avoid when buying a Medical Alert System ?

 

Here are a few mistakes to avoid making when you purchase a medical alert system –

 

  • Don’y buy into a fixed term contract – you should be able to withdraw at any time
  • Make sure that you test the device you have bought immediately, as you only get 30 days to return them with most companies and then you will have to pay for at least the first plan period you signed up to
  • Make sure that you are aware of what you are paying for – do you own the equipment or are you leasing it ? 
  • If you are leasing the equipment you mustn’t forget that you will have to return it, so don’t throw it out !
  • Are you installing the system yourself, or is it a professional installation, and what are the fees for installation ?
  • I was surprised to discover that some companies charge an installation fee even if you install the system yourself !! Stay clear of that !
  • Is any specialist equipment needed for the installation ? I would also be wary of this, as so many of the systems are pretty much straight out of the box and turn on,. You shouldn’t need to be doing anything complicated
  • Remember to be aware of what is an added extra before you speak to a sales person, as this will help you avoid getting stuff you don’t need
  • Be clear about how many bits of kit you are getting
  • Check the volume of the devices when you receive them to make sure you can hear them clearly, especially if it is an in-home system 
  • Make sure the “Help” buttons on the pendants and wristbands are sending the signals to the base station throughout your house
  • I would to be sure that the monitoring center agents replying to your emergency alerts speak english as a first language so there is no confusion
  • Lastly if you are getting a cellular/mobile network device, I would do your research and make sure you have good network coverage in your area 

Which medical alert system is right for you and how to choose one ?

 You have to assess what your parents needs are now and to try and imagine how they may evolve over time.

You will need to find out what your parent feels they need, as this is going to impact on the way they live their life.

In some cases, if your parent is not able to make these decisions, or join in the conversation, due to dementia or other mental health issues, this in itself will help to determine what kind of system they end up having. If they can’t respond to a call center calling them, the parameters of the system will be different to those used by people who are able to respond to calls.

Here’s my list of what I need to get from the system for my mum. We just sat down and had a chat about what we both thought was necessary.

Nobody likes a lot of devices and gadgets to wear, so you may find some resistance coming from your parent or loved one. If you include them fully in the process of choosing, it should be a lot easier. Make it clear that it’s for their safety and for peace of mind for all concerned, and things should get much easier.

 This list should give you lots of ideas of questions you need to ask yourself and your elderly parent.

I want the system to –

  • be comfortable to wear
  • be waterproof
  • be for inside and outside the home
  • have an app which alerts me when there is a problem
  • have an automatic fall detector
  • have activity monitoring
  • be okay with hearing loss
  • allow me to check in and see if the daily routine is being followed
  • alert me if the routine has changed
  • work anywhere my mum goes
  • have a pendant and a mobile device
  • have a long battery life
  • be simple to use
  • not need too many updates for my mother to have to deal with – I don’t mind about the app
  • easy to set up
  • be able to take it when we travel
  • have an english speaking response center
  • be clearly priced and not a minefield to negotiate

I also need to know if –

  • the installation is in the price ?
  • who owns the devices ?
  • who pays for damages and breakages  ?
  • who pays for maintenance ?
  • what happens if the devices are stolen ?
  • Is there any cost for the battery replacements for pendants and wristbands ?
  • are you charged if you lose a device ? – don’t forget how much of an issue memory can be !

I hope this gives you a good idea of the types of questions you should be asking before you purchase a medical alert system.

Conclusion

Medical alert systems fall into two main categories of monitored  and unmonitored systems.

With the monitored medical alert systems you get a whole other layer of protection.

I found that all the monitoring centers will either contact caregivers and family members when there is an alert, or in emergencies they will send out the emergency services to the user. The operators are qualified to use their judgement and training, to make what can be critical decisions, and will often have a chat with the user to see if it is a real emergency, or if the user just needed to hear a comforting voice.

If the emergency services are sent, the family will also be notified by the monitoring center as to what is happening.

You will also see that some of the more expensive plans have apps which allow you, the rest of your family and the caregivers to check on your loved one’s routines and activities at any time to see how things are going. 

Just remember if it’s cellular/mobile network, check your signal and coverage to make sure it’s going to work in an emergency.

The unmonitored systems which don’t offer monitoring centers will alert you via your phone if your loved one is in need of help. These “self-monitoring systems” are becoming more prevalent, as the use of monitoring sensors becomes more advanced.

If you can’t afford a regular subscription, the unmonitored medical alerts can still be invaluable and off peace of mind.

For The Future ?

At present new types of systems are on the market which are using sensors to detect emergencies.

Sensors are placed around the home which track the user’s activities, and if an irregularity is noted an alert is sent to the phone of the selected contacts.

Such apps also allow the caregivers and family members to check to see, at any time, if the users routine has altered.

Already some of these systems have combinations of call buttons and sensors, and I think this, especially for in the home is going to be the way the systems will develop.

There are now sensors being developed which use radio waves and they know when someone has fallen or is not breathing and can send an alert.

Things will probably move very quickly in the next 5 yrs and what is on offer should greatly increase with GPS, Radio and Wi Fi Technologies.

I’m Gareth and I’m the owner of Looking After Mom and Dad.com

I have been a caregiver for over 10 yrs and share all my tips here.

Gareth Williams

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What are Medical Alert Systems ?
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Medical alert systems are designed to detect users in need of urgent medical care, and to call and alert emergency medical personnel, family and caregivers to the emergencies.
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