How Do Medical Alert Systems Work?

Image of an aging person (with their legs and feet in the frame) walking barefoot on a wet surface and being at risk of falling.

Here’s everything you need to know about how medical alert systems work, plus tips on how to pick one that works for you or someone you love.

Summary

  • A medical alert system is a device that can be installed in the home or worn around the neck, wrist, or waist to help keep someone safe.
  • These systems are simple to use and offer various features, such as fall detection, medication reminders, and GPS tracking.
  • When choosing a medical alert system, pick one that will best suit you or your loved one — you might not need all or even any of the optional features.
  • At-home medical alert systems work best for those who spend most of their time in the house, while mobile medical alert systems are great for people who are out and about more.

A medical alert system is an investment that can help keep you or your loved one safe. But with so many different types of medical alert systems on the market, how do you know which one will work best for you?

Whether you’re searching for a system that can keep you safe in the home, or something portable, it’s important to understand how each of these systems works before you can choose the right device for your needs.

Statistics show that there are more than 56 million adults over the age of 65 in the U.S., but only 3 million Americans actually own medical alert systems.

Despite how useful medical alert systems are, around 73% of aging adults don’t believe they need them. 

Once you know how medical alert systems work, what they offer, and how their features can keep you and your loved ones safe, you’ll be ready to invest in one.

What is a Medical Alert System?

Sometimes called personal emergency response systems (PERS), medical alert systems are devices that can help someone in the event of an emergency. 

They come in different shapes and sizes, and also offer various features to suit your needs.

Medical alert systems are typically used by people who may not be able to access a mobile phone should an emergency occur. 

These devices can help adults lead a more independent life and enjoy their freedom even as they age. 

An Asian man and Asian woman are smiling directly at the camera. The man has his arm around the woman, and they look to be in their 60s.

What Types of Medical Alert Systems Can I Choose From?

Medical alert devices offer a variety of features for different people, but the two main types of systems are at-home systems and mobile medical systems (also known as on-the-go medical alert systems).

Once you understand how each of these systems works, you’ll be able to decide which one to purchase for yourself or an aging family member.

When Does Someone Need a Medical Alert System?
Medical alert systems are important for protecting those who are at risk of requiring emergency medical attention. 

The risk of falling increases with age, and the CDC estimates that an aging adult falls every second in the U.S. This makes medical alert systems essential for those who’ve had a fall before. However, other people can also benefit from them as well.
Aging adults may benefit from a medical alert system if they:

1. Live alone or have chosen to age in place.
2. Have an illness or condition that affects their cognitive abilities.
3. Have mental or physical impairments that make it difficult to complete daily tasks.
4. Run errands on their own outside of the house.
5. Travel alone.
6. Lead an active lifestyle where they enjoy doing outdoor activities.
7. Have any drug, food, or insect allergies.

At-home medical alert systems

Sometimes called in-home medical alert systems, these devices are stationed in the home and typically comprise a base station with a detachable pendant. 

At-home medical alert systems can also be mounted on walls in strategic places, such as in the shower or near the bath, where the highest rate of injuries occurs.

How does it work?

At-home medical alert systems are typically placed in central areas around the home — such as the living room or kitchen — or spaces where falls and other injuries are likely to take place, like the bathroom.

Some of these devices have a wearable component that can be used as a pendant or wristband, allowing the person to safely move around the house within the signal range of their at-home system.

In the event of a fall or other emergency, at-home medical alert systems will help the wearer get in touch with someone that can help.

At-home medical alert systems work by allowing the wearer to press a panic button attached to their device or by issuing a voice command. 

Some devices also have sensors that can detect changes in the environment, or monitor the wearer’s movements and send out an emergency alert.

In-home systems are simple to install and typically connect to existing landlines or cellular networks.

We’ll help you understand how these devices work so you can determine whether they’re right for you or your loved ones looking for extra peace of mind.

Below we explain some of the most common features of at-home medical alert systems. 

Call loved ones or emergency contacts

You can program the numbers of loved ones, caregivers, or emergency responders into your medical alert pendant and call them at the touch of a button if an emergency arises.

Contact a call center 

Some medical alert systems have the option of calling a 24-hour emergency monitoring center in an emergency. 

This is especially useful if an aging adult sets off a false alarm or mistakes an event for an emergency. 

To avoid contacting the emergency responders with false alarms, an agent from the monitoring center will assess the situation and then contact 911, a family member, or a primary caregiver on the person’s behalf.

These centers’ services are available around the clock, but users often have to pay a subscription fee for this feature which is aimed at providing additional peace of mind.

Voice-activated buttons 

If someone has injured themselves or fallen beyond the reach of a panic button, voice-activated buttons can be a lifesaving feature. 

These buttons are activated with a wake word and they typically work within a 1,000-foot radius, but wider ranges may be available.

Voice activation can also come in handy for people who have disabilities that prevent them from getting to a device in time to press a button.

Wall buttons or panic buttons

By installing wall buttons or panic buttons throughout the house — especially in areas where there’s a high risk of injuries, such as kitchens, staircases, or bathrooms — you can enjoy greater peace of mind.

You may also want to put a panic button in areas where you or your loved one spends a lot of time, such as the kitchen or living room.

Our Freedom Alert Emergency Wall Communicator is a one-touch panic button that can be mounted in spaces where the risk of injuries is high.

Water-resistance

Because most bathroom injuries occur in the shower or tub, having a medical alert device that’s water-resistant is essential. 

An aging adult may find comfort in wearing a medical alert device while taking a shower, or having a wall-mounted panic button in the cubicle or above the bathtub.

Water-resistant devices cannot withstand being completely submerged in water, but they’re great for use in the shower. 

Logicmark’s Freedom Alert and Guardian Alert 991 Plus are two water-resistant devices that can keep you or your loved ones safe while taking a shower.

An image of a bathroom. The bathtub is straight ahead with a window above it, and the sink is on the left. A mirror sits above the sink and is showing the reflection of the window. To the left are rust-colored towels hanging. The bathroom has a gold and brown color scheme.
Good battery life

Life-saving devices like medical alert systems should have good battery life. Just imagine your device stops working the moment you try to make the emergency call. 

It’s important to test out your medical alert system to see if the battery lasts long enough for your requirements. 

Some devices come with rechargeable batteries, while others will need replacement batteries. 

If you’re someone who enjoys traveling, you may require a device that lasts longer between charges or one that won’t need the batteries to be replaced so often. 

“Good battery life” is relative. What works for someone else may not work for you. 

So always test out the device and make sure you can return it if you’re not entirely satisfied with your purchase.

Temperature monitoring

A temperature sensor may be built into the base station of your medical alert device. This monitors the room’s temperature and will send out an alert when there’s a problem.

This feature is especially useful if there’s a fire. It will sense the temperature change and alert a monitoring center agent who can then contact emergency services to alert them.

Suitable range 

Think about the farthest distance you may move away from your device. How big is your property? Will you be spending a lot of time in the garden?

Always test the device to make sure it can meet your needs. Most devices have a range of 400 to 1,000 feet.

Easy to use

Does the device have a quick and easy setup? Would you or your aging loved one be able to operate it? How about charging or replacing the batteries?

It’s important that the device is easy enough to use during an emergency when someone will need to act fast.

Is an at-home medical alert system the right choice?

Different medical alert companies provide devices with different price points and features. 

Most medical alert systems won’t have features like temperature monitoring or voice activation, but that’s okay because not everyone requires these extras.

Mobile medical alert systems

Also known as on-the-go medical alert systems, these mobile systems are portable, wearable devices designed for those who spend a lot of their time doing outdoor activities.

Unlike in-home systems that are limited to the house, mobile medical alert systems are freestanding devices that use mobile networks. 

As long as there’s cellular coverage in an area, they’ll work.

These compact devices can be clipped onto a belt, worn around the wrist, or be attached to a pendant so they’re always close by if a medical emergency should occur.

Mobile medical alert systems offer some excellent features. We’ll explain how they work below.

Fall detection

Given how often falls occur among older folks, automatic fall detection is one of the most important features of a medical alert system. 

If an adult should be injured or lose consciousness due to a fall, they won’t be able to press a button or use a voice command to call for help. 

This makes fall detection such a useful feature. It will send a notification to the monitoring center or one of the other emergency contacts so that the person who has fallen can get medical attention fast.

However, fall detection is a feature that often comes at a cost. Most medical alert companies that offer this are likely to charge a monthly fee for the service.

There is no question that fall detection is a valuable feature, and a recent study revealed that fall detection sensors have a success rate of 98.7%. 

While the feature works well, there’s still room to improve fall detection technology.

Activity tracking

This feature can monitor movement. If someone has injured themselves — often due to a fall — then the device will notify an emergency contact or the monitoring center. 

Someone can then contact the device owner directly or pay a visit to find out what the problem is.

Medication reminders

Missing a dose of medication could lead to serious complications and aging adults with conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s are more likely to forget to take their meds on time.

This feature can help people who take several medications stay on top of things when there’s no one else around to assist them.

A close up of a man's hands holding open a pill organizer. There are four different sections, with groups of four different sized and colored medications.
GPS tracking

It’s not uncommon for aging adults to get lost. The Alzheimer’s Association lists wandering among the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. 

Statistics show that six in 10 people who have dementia will wander once, but many wander habitually.

The 2021 Alzheimer’s Association Report estimates that 6.2 million people in the U.S. older than 65 have Alzheimer’s dementia and that this figure could rise to 13.8 million by 2060.

Anyone can get lost, but the risk is much higher for aging adults who live on their own and are free to move around independently. 

Mobile systems with GPS tracking are essential for these individuals.

GPS location services may allow caregivers and family members to view the live location of their loved ones and to get them home safely should they become disoriented.

Water-resistance or waterproof

For those who don’t have panic buttons in the bathroom, water-resistant wearable medical alert devices are great options.

Accidents happen fast, and wearing a mobile medical alert system around the wrist or neck while taking a shower or bath can ensure your safety and peace of mind. 

Just remember: water-resistant devices are suitable for showering, but you’ll need a waterproof system if the device will be submerged in water when bathing. 

Always check the waterproof rating if you’re planning to use your device in or near water.

Health monitoring

A medical alert system is more than a fall detection device. Some models can also monitor heart rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels.

This makes it easy for caregivers, doctors, and family members to monitor loved ones with chronic conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes.

Discreet designs

Some people might be reluctant or feel uncomfortable wearing a device that monitors them — especially if that device draws unnecessary attention from others. 

A lightweight, discreet device — such as a pendant, wristband, or belt clip — will easily go unnoticed and it’s more likely to be worn by an aging adult.

Practical accessories

A mobile medical alert device won’t be useful if someone doesn’t wear it as intended. 

This is why most medical alert companies provide accessories — such as lanyards, belt clips, and wristbands — that can be used with wearable devices. 

Practical accessories make it easier for mobile medical alert devices to fit your lifestyle.

Is a mobile medical alert system the right choice?

A mobile medical alert device might not be the best option for everyone. 

People who spend most of their time indoors and only tend to travel with friends, family members, or caregivers, may not require a portable device.

Remember, the best medical alert systems are the ones that will meet your needs as an individual. Not everyone requires feature-rich mobile alert systems. 

Maybe a basic device that’s water-resistant and has good battery life will suffice. 

No matter what you decide, make sure the medical alert equipment you choose is easy to use and that it works for the person who’ll be wearing it.

Unmonitored Medical Alert Systems vs. Monitored Medical Alert Systems

Not only are there different types of medical alert devices, but there are also two different plans for these systems: monitored and unmonitored.

Unmonitored medical alert systems have a one-off fee and no monthly subscription costs. 

They typically offer basic features, such as pre-programmed numbers that connect to 911, caregivers, friends, and family members.

Monitored medical alert systems have a direct link to 24-hour monitoring centers. Any notifications or calls that come through from a medical alert device will go to an agent who will assess the situation before either dialing 911, or notifying friends, family, or caregivers of what has happened.

Monitored medical alert devices typically cost more than unmonitored ones, but they work well for adults who need extra support. 

Because monitored devices are connected to 24/7 support, they may be the more reliable option. There’s a chance that friends and family members may miss an emergency call.

How Do I Convince My Parent to Get a Medical Alert System?

It’s safe to assume that there’s reasonable reluctance to getting medical alert systems, given that over 70% of aging adults don’t believe they need one. 

If you’ve made it to this point in the article, you probably understand the benefits of medical alert systems — but how do you convince your parent who lives on the fifth floor of an apartment building to get one?

Here are a few things you could do to help your parents warm to the idea of a medical alert device:

Approach the topic with respect and understanding: Your mom or dad may not be able to do many of the things they used to do, but they’re still your parents. Treat them with dignity, and be careful not to order them around as if they’ve become the child.

Listen to their doubts and fears: If your parent is really vocal about not wanting or needing a medical alert device, try to understand why they feel this way. Are they embarrassed? Are they afraid of accidentally calling the monitoring center? Open up a conversation and give them reassurance.

Have a test run: Most medical alert companies will give you a trial period during which you can return the medical alert system if you’re not entirely satisfied with the product. Use this period to show your parents how a medical alert system works, and reassure them that it can be returned if they don’t like it or see the value in it.

Get a medical professional’s advice: If your parent isn’t open to the idea, it might be time to get a doctor involved. There’s a greater chance of them listening if a healthcare professional explains the benefits of a medical alert system.

Buy a medical alert system for them: Medical alert systems cost money and they might not fit into your parents’ budget. In this case, consider gifting your mom or dad a medical alert device. They’ll be able to test it, and if they don’t like it, you can always return it for a refund if that’s what’s offered.

Don’t feel disheartened if your first or second attempt at convincing them fails. If you need help reassuring your folks that a medical alert device is a worthwhile investment, feel free to contact us. We’ll be happy to answer your questions.

Where Can I Learn More about Medical Alert Devices?

Now that you know how medical alert devices work, are you ready to try one? Logicmark can help. Go ahead and browse our line of in-home and mobile medical alert options