Thinking of getting a medical alert system for yourself or a loved one? Before you dial 911, get the 411 on these life-saving devices first with this extensive guide and provider review so you not only earn the best value for your budget, you also get peace of mind.
In 2018, life expectancy rates in the United States rose for the first time after four troubling years. The New York Times reported in this article that “Life expectancy is the most basic measure of the health of a society,” and the increase in numbers signifies that health care systems and other medical protocols must be working.
One of these health care systems that have greatly developed over the years is what’s referred to as medical alert systems. These devices serve as life alert systems for those who have illnesses and other medical conditions that need immediate and frequent attention. It’s like having your own personal emergency responder, activated quickly with the press of a button. It may sound that simple, but medical alert systems are anything but. So we’ve assembled this comprehensive guide and product review to help you navigate your way around the complex world of medical alert systems.
Medical Alert Systems – Just What Are They?
In the simplest terms, a medical alert system is a wearable device that can call for emergency help when activated. It comes in a setup of gadget-components that work together whenever the device user either takes a fall or experiences any other life-threatening emergencies, like a stroke, a heart attack, or a severe allergic reaction. Once a medical alert is summoned, the second user of the device, usually a caregiver or a family member, will then be notified about the emergency so they can attend to their ward right away.
Additionally, the medical alert device also sends a distress signal to a live dispatcher, who can easily determine what level of emergency care to call for and where the exact location of the user is. Those first ten minutes right after the emergency are most crucial to survival, and having a medical alert system on hand can spell the difference between life and death. That’s why these life alert devices are no technological fads, but rather must-haves in these uncertain times. But these systems can cost an arm and a leg, too, so it’s best to determine first who could surely use a setup like this.
Who Can Best Benefit From A Medical Alert System?
Let’s get this longstanding assumption out of the way: It’s not just the elderly who need medical alert systems, even though most infomercials and magazine ads about these products are targeted more towards their demographic. But everybody from all ages can benefit from a medical alert system, most especially if their daily routines are endangered by any unpredictable, underlying medical conditions.
A medical alert system is particularly valuable for people who:
- Have neural disorders that cause them regular faint spells
- Are still recovering from any accidents or traumatic experiences, particularly those whose PTSD can be triggered easily
- Have high blood pressure, severe asthma, arthritis, epilepsy, or diabetes
- Are prone to severe allergic reactions that can either paralyze movement or constrict breathing
- Have recently been discharged from hospital admission and are now either returning home or moving into assisted living facilities
And while the name itself specifies “medical,” life alert systems can go beyond just that. These devices can also call for help in other emergencies like carbon and monoxide poisoning, fires, break-ins, and even flooding. Alert1, a manufacturer of medical alert systems based in Pennsylvania, released this book of actual transcripts between their dispatchers and device users, and here’s one of the funnier, inconceivable story of a real-life case wherein the elderly device user had to call for help because of a racoon break-in in her bedroom.
Apart from seniors, children can also greatly benefit from medical alert devices. For parents who have to work full-time, they can rest easy knowing that assigning a life alert system to babysitters or other family caregivers ensures the safety of their kids. This heightened sense of security can also come in very handy for mothers who have recently given birth and could use an additional home security system apart from the one that’s merely installed on the front and back doors.
Now that we’ve delineated the various demographics of who can benefit from having a medical alert system, it’s time to further explore the unique and helpful features of these devices that make them a worthy investment.
How Do I Know What To Look For In A Medical Alert System?
A medical alert system is not just one standalone device. It’s a standard setup with multiple components, namely:
This is the base unit of the set, which transmits the 2-way voice-call communication between the device wearer and the live dispatcher at the 24/7 monitoring hub. The console normally has two easily identifiable buttons – the emergency button to call for a distress signal and the reset button that either cancels the call or informs the live dispatcher that help has finally arrived. Ideally, the console should be positioned in a central location inside your home as its transmission highly relies on a standard cellphone network.
The Wearable Device Transmitter
This usually comes in the form of either a pendant that you wear like a necklace (the most common type) or a wristband that resembles a watch. Both types of transmitters have a button that the user can press easily, sending a wireless signal to the console, which in turn, sends the distress signal to the live dispatcher. With the uptick in wireless, wearable fitness and health trackers, it comes as no surprise that the wristband transmitter type might become more prevalent eventually as the technology develops further.
The Live Dispatch Station
On the far end of your medical alert system is a monitoring station of dispatchers who respond to your distress call the moment you press your button. Think of them as real-time 911 dispatchers, but only answering exclusively to your emergency calls. Live dispatch stations are operational 24/7 and the best ones can respond to emergency calls less than 30 seconds after the signal is sent out.
The Cellular Network Provider
As aforementioned in “The Console” section, medical alert systems manage to transmit their signals through standard cellphone networks who provide for their transmission. Most medical alert systems are connected only through Verizon or AT&T, but this November 2019 article in Senior Living has updated that Verizon has already discontinued their own life alert system known as SureResponse Medical Alert. Verizon, however, continues to provide transmission for other brands, and a good way to determine which particular medical alert system to get is to know which between the two cellular network providers has the strongest service within your area.
Why Not Just Use An Existing Cellphone Service or Smart Home-Controller?
If these life alert devices are so reliant on cellular networks, then why the need to purchase them? Seems like a cellphone or Alexa can do the job just as well, yes? — If you’ve asked these questions yourself, understand that just because the device relies on a cellular network doesn’t make it replaceable by your cellphone or Alexa. The reason that life alert systems make worthy investments is that they significantly reduce the time between an emergency occurring and when the actual help arrives. Even if you can dial 911 on your cellphone or ask Alexa to do it for you, the risk factors of your emergency call not being handled instantly can cause you to lose those crucial minutes of immediate medical attention.
According to this Mental Floss article that’s been updated last year, “On busy days, 911 dispatchers may get somewhere between 300 and 500 calls, and they have to answer every single one of them. However, many of them aren’t true emergencies.” That staggering statistic is reason enough to cause a panic attack. Imagine a loved one taking a nasty fall, but still having to wait on the other end of the line because the 911 hotline could be flooded.
That’s why mere cellphones and Alexa can never equal a real-deal medical alert system because they don’t have that capacity to send a distress call in a nanosecond. And that fraction of a second could be the only thing that could keep your loved one alive after a medical emergency.
What Are Other Things That Make Medical Alert Systems So Handy?
Here are other key features of medical alert systems that set them far apart from everyday devices you have at home that you’ve already been using:
Majority of life alert systems on the market are waterproof to ensure that the device user can still wear it while showering, swimming, or even getting wet in the rain.
Longer Battery Life
Unlike standard cellphones and smart-home controllers, which need to be charged daily, wearable devices normally can last for several days before recharging is needed. This enables the user to be more mobile in their movement without having to worry about powering up their device every few hours or so.
Medical alert systems were designed to be simple and as user-friendly as possible to make the distress call straight-forward and instant. There’s no need to enter a password or a PIN to unlock the device. Just press a button, talk to a dispatcher, then wait for help to arrive.
Long Distance Range
For medical alert systems that are dependent on a landline-type connection, most can allow the transmission device to go as far as from 350 feet up to a distance of 1,000 feet. For those devices that only need mobile cellular service, it will function anywhere, as long as there’s a signal nearby. GPS-enabled systems also allow live dispatchers to track device users in case of any accidents without needing to ask them for their location.
Do Medical Alert Systems Pose A Threat For Pacemakers?
For those utilizing senior alert systems, there might be some concern for the device wearers who are also hooked up to a pacemaker or an ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillators). There’s a chance that medical alert systems can transmit some form of electromagnetic waves that could interfere with ICDs and pacemakers, so it’s always a good idea to inquire from your medical alert system with regards to this. If you do figure out that there might be some risk involved, consult with your cardiologist right away.
Our Comprehensive Review on The 6 Top-Rated Providers in the Market Today
With hundreds of brands with different features to choose from, we’ve narrowed down the 6 top-rated life alert device providers available, according to these criteria:
This includes any and all charges that come with the device – initial activation fee, monthly subscription fee, any add-on charges, and even cancellation fee.
Considering that the majority of life alert system users are indeed the elderly, we’ve assessed which brand had the most effective design that made it the easiest to wear, particularly when it comes to handiness, comfort, and size.
This is a special feature that’s not available in all systems. However, it’s what makes medical alert devices so unique. Fall detection allows the system to instantly sense if the device user has suddenly taken a fall, and on its own, automatically contacts a live dispatcher.
Live Dispatcher Response Time
No matter how ergonomic of a design a medical alert device can be, the most important thing in a system is still the rapidity and ease of a wearer to talk to a live dispatcher. And equally important for us was to determine which providers of these systems had dispatch centers based solely in North America.
Customer Service Hotline
It’s not just about responding to emergency calls that are important but also for basic questions about the product and service that any caregiver or device user can have. This could include asking about early cancellation, replacement for damaged units, or changing a subscription plan.
We took considerable time to consider over 20 products that met the five aforementioned criteria, researching on their respective features and available reviews. We shortlisted it down to six medical alert system providers that stood out among the rest, and this is what we’ve come up with:
Best Overall System
Best Value for Your Money
Bay Alarm Medical
Fastest Response Time
Great Call Lively Mobile
Best in Extra Features
Best Specialized System
Best Option For Those With No Landlines
There’s a good reason why Medical Guardian is rated A+ by the BBB (Better Business Bureau). Ever since its inception in 2006, when its founder, Geoff Gross, started his own small-scale operations after his own grandmother suffered from a terrible fall at home, it’s no surprise that such a firsthand experience-driven company would be awarded the highest rating by the business accreditation watchdog.
Medical Guardian recently launched their Limitless Icons Collection, a line of wearable pendant buttons that resemble fine jewelry pieces. By foregoing the traditional, clunky-looking design, Medical Guardian is helping empower device users to not be afraid of stepping out more, yet still feeling safe and secure.
With their lowest product line starting at $29.95, Medical Guardian offers a wider array of units with specific features and pricing plans. Their monthly costs can go up to as high as $79.95, which is quite reasonable, considering this is for their Family Guardian system, which equips you with up to 3 sensors. Not only do they have a quick-responding customer service hotline, they also have dedicated a separate number for their Life Safety Consultants, who can walk you through the process of deciding which system suits your needs the best.
Bay Alarm Medical
Bay Alarm Medical is an offshoot of Bay Alarm, a company that started in 1946 making home security alarm systems. Among all the providers we’ve reviewed, Bay Alarm Medical offers the most affordable set of medical alert systems. For just $19.95 per month, you can avail of their In The Home setup on a landline system, with no additional installation, activation, and equipment charges.
A striking feature on Bay Alarm Medical’s devices is its one-touch button on the console with the word, “HELP” written in all caps. That’s as straightforward as you can get to call for help. And out of all the medical alert systems we’ve researched, only Bay Alarm Medical has innovated with a one-of-a-kind life alert called Splitsecnd In-Car Medical Alert, a device that plugs into the cigarette lighter of a car, so that emergency help can still be summoned even if the device user is out on the road.
Bay Alarm Medical also provides users with a great option called Bundle & Save. This full-coverage includes all 3 types of Bay Alarm Medical’s systems – Inside The Home, On The Go, and In The Car – for a packaged rate of $59.95 a month, with additional one-time purchase fee of $79 for the On The Go unit. Bay Alarm Medical’s cost-friendly strategies have helped them become a trusted provider for medical alert devices even until today.
GreatCall Lively Mobile
GreatCall is the company behind the Jitterbug Flip, an easy-to-use cell phone with a 5Star urgent response button, and the Jitterbug Smart2, the simplest smartphone available that also has an emergency call feature. Their main medical alert device is the Lively Mobile Plus, the smallest and lightest emergency portable button in the market that looks more like a keychain than it does a life alert device.
GreatCall has also produced the Lively Wearable2, a smartwatch that also doubles as an urgent response device, but the Lively Mobile Plus continues to be their best-seller, mainly for the reason that among all the medical alert systems, GreatCall provides the speediest response times for emergencies. This PC Mag 2017 review detailed that GreatCall Lively Mobile Plus, “garnered an average time of 13 seconds compared with the Bay Alarm Medical Mobile GPS time of 59 seconds and the Medical Guardian Active Mobile time of 25 seconds.”
The pricing plan for a GreatCall device is quite reasonable, with a beginning monthly plan of $19.99 giving you the 24/7 basic emergency response benefit. An upgrade of their $24.99 plan provides you with Urgent Care, which gives you 24/7 access to nurses or doctors whom you can easily consult with, and whom you can request for prescriptions for common medications. Getting the Lively Mobile Plus, however, requires a $49.95 one-time fee for purchasing the device. You might want to grab their limited time offer of 50% off on their devices at the moment if you’ve been thinking of getting a life alert system soon.
LifeFone proves that we should never judge a medical alert system by its design. With its components looking like devices that have not evolved from two decades ago, it’s what comes with LifeFone devices that makes it quite astounding. For starters, LifeFone is one of the very few providers that offer complimentary spouse coverage, with a second portable device offered completely free of charge. The most basic monthly subscription for their At-Home system is at $24.99, so imagine the cost-savings for couples who might be wary of having to spend another $24.99 for an extra unit, when they just live under one roof.
LifeFone’s devices also have a built-in temperature sensor in them to monitor for any sudden increase or decline in temperature. One of the most impressive products they have is their two-in-one At-Home & On-The-GO GPS, Voice in Necklace pendant that can last for 30 days before recharging. Yes, that’s right, 30 straight days of using your device before it’s time to charge it again.
But the best feature that really makes LifeFone stand out is its smartphone app, Mobile Alert. The most amazing thing about this is Mobile Alert is a standalone feature, meaning, you don’t need to purchase the medical alert system to be able to use it. Mobile Alert is compatible both for Android and iPhone, and employing the same technology as the portable devices, sends a distress call to LifeFone’s exclusive dispatch center at the touch of a button. Mobile Alert is available for a monthly fee of $5.95 for existing LifeFone subscribers, or $7.95 a month for new subscribers.
While quite relatively new in the medical alert systems industry (founded in 2010 by MIT scientists and engineers), QMedic has already risen to become one of the most lauded life alert devices in the market today. What sets apart QMedic from all the rest is its compliance and activity monitoring system. This specialized system not just functions as an alert device, it also works kind of like a lightweight heart monitor that you wear around your neck or wrist.
This ultra-smart device can detect deviations in sleep and activity patterns to alert any caregivers of sudden, rapid changes in the user’s body. Likewise, it provides proactive detection that can alert for abnormal behavior patterns, be it in the user’s breathing, heart rate, or other biometrics. Another outstanding capability of this specialized feature is how the system can detect if the user is wearing the device or not. So this makes QMedic perfect for users who are extremely frail, have seeing disabilities, or are disabled.
Another draw to QMedic is its no-frills subscription plans. There’s really only two ways to go about it – annually (priced at $25 for each month) or $30/month for a month-to-month plan.
MobileHelp is the perfect provider for homes without landline phones because the company doesn’t charge additional fees for its cellular In-Home systems, unlike a lot of other providers out there. With more and more households ditching landlines for the ease and advantage of cellphones, it’s good to know that MobileHelp offers a wide range of inexpensive cellular devices for medical alert systems.
The Classic subscription for MobileHelp starts at $19.95 per month, for an In-Home system. There’s also the helpful Solo and Mobile Duo subscriptions, which provide a mobile device that contains a two-way speaker and waterproof pendant. The Mobile Duo costs about $44.95 monthly, and the two devices can be used by two different people living within the same parameter.
MobileHelp’s latest offering is Touch, an all-around system that includes a wearable device, a mobile device, and a tablet. The Touch tablet is equipped with bonus features like in-home medication reminders, remote patient monitoring for blood pressure, pulse, glucose monitor, and weighing scale, cognitive brain-power games, and fall management. MobileHelp Touch offers annual and semi-annual subscription plans, and while hefty, could really make all the difference in life alert and health monitoring.
Editor’s Pick – Medical Guardian
There’s no question about it when selecting something crucial to survival, it’s always best to go for the top leader in the industry, and that’s why we’re going with Medical Guardian. Aside from providing gold-standard medical alert devices, Medical Guardian is also a renowned employer. The company has been distinguished repeatedly, several times in the last few years, like being one of the Top 25 Midsize Companies category in the Greater Philadelphia region in 2018. We strongly believe that this testifies to their excellent customer service, continual product and research development, and overall mission to provide health care and peace of mind to millions of American families.