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Consumer Affairs Review of Medical Alert Systems

What is a medical alert system?

A medical alert system is a wearable electronic device—usually a clip, bracelet, lanyard or necklace—that detects harm and hazard, including up to 95 percent of falls when used properly. Most medical alert devices are not much larger than a key ring. The device will connect you to an emergency responder if you have a sudden accident. Since the device is already on your person, you don’t have to worry about reaching for and dialing a phone to call for help.

How do medical alert systems work?

The device wirelessly communicates with the systems provider through a small radio transmitter and console that’s connected to your cellular or landline telephone. These devices connect to what’s called a “personal emergency response service” or a “medical emergency response system.”

There are passive and active devices. An active device will require you to press a button to call for help, while a passive system monitors movements or lack of movements to determine an emergency.

The most effective medical alert systems include two-way communication. When a medical emergency occurs, a dispatcher will advise the best course of action and contact emergency services, an emergency contact of your choosing, or both, for you. Most devices include a panic button or emergency button. With some devices, when you hit the emergency button an ambulance is sent automatically. The provider may first try to make contact via phone or another communication method, depending on your plan’s monitoring services.

Much like phone companies, monitoring services may need to run lines throughout homes. If this is the case, you’ll need to find out if lines are insured or if the damage is the responsibility of the homeowner.

How to choose a medical alert system

Medical alert systems can be monitored or unmonitored and connect to a home-based or mobile system. They’re available with or without fall alerts. All these differences mean it’s important to know which type of medical alert system is best for you. This will require you to be honest with yourself about your medical needs.

1. Choose between a home-based or mobile medical alert system

Traditional medical alert systems were created to work best in your home, while mobile systems were designed with a more active lifestyle in mind. Both systems typically require the user to press a button to alert medical professionals of an emergency.

Home-based medical alert system:

Sometimes referred to as “traditional medical alert systems,” these in-home systems have not changed much since the 1970s. They come with a wireless pendant that connects to a base within a specific range. Home medical alerts typically have lower monthly service fees than mobile medical alert systems. The most common complaints about home-based medical alert systems are that the speakerphone can be difficult to hear and service is not available in all locations.  Best for people who are often alone in their homes.

Mobile medical alert system:

Mobile medical alert systems, also called “on-the-go” systems, hit the market in the early 2000s. These systems don’t require a base since you use your wearable device to speak to an operator on the other line, or directly with 911, no matter where you are. A mobile medical alert system with GPS is another option you should consider when shopping for a medical alert system.  Mobile medical alert systems have better technology, features and options than home-based medical alert systems, but they also come at a higher cost. You must be sure to regularly charge your device.  Best for adults with active lifestyles.

2. Determine if you need a monitored or unmonitored medical alert system

Monitored medical alert systems connect you to a real person when you press the button. Unmonitored medical alert systems dial through pre-programmed contacts when the device is triggered. Monitored medical alert systems typically provide better service and require a monthly service fee. With unmonitored medical alert systems you’ll usually just pay for the device without a monthly fee.

Monitored medical alert systems:

A monitored medical alert system has a live person tracking activity on the other end. The call button will connect you to a dispatching center, and a trained response professional will talk you through your crisis. The person at the dispatching center will contact a close friend or family member or 911. Monitoring helps ensure that there are minimal false alarms and unnecessary 911 calls.  Best for people with limited mobility and those who suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease or another form of dementia.

Unmonitored medical alert systems:

Often referred to as “no-monthly-fee” systems because these systems don’t require a service contract to function, unmonitored systems will connect you to pre-programmed emergency contacts when the device is triggered. Instead of getting a guaranteed answer through an emergency dispatch center, the system calls through its list until it reaches the final number, which may be 911.  Best for people who are aging-in-place with relatively good health and mobility.

3. Decide if you should add a fall alert system to your medical alert device

Fall alert systems use accelerometers, barometric sensors and/or an algorithm to track the movement of the device. These are often located in a fall detection bracelet or in a fall detection sensor around the neck. If the fall detection sensor detects a sudden movement that seems like a fall, the device is triggered to send out a signal to a control center. This feature can be life-saving for seniors after a fall that renders them unconscious or immobile.

Traditional medical alert systems may seem adequate, but they typically require the user to press a button in order to alert medical professionals of an emergency. Fall alert systems can trigger a fall alarm, eliminating the need to press a button to alert emergency personnel after an accident.

Pros

  • Gives peace of mind to caregivers
  • Provides extra security for the wearer
  • Works when the wearer is unconscious

Cons

  • Expensive monthly fees
  • Can trigger false alarms
  • Cannot detect 100 percent of falls

Cost of medical alert systems

Cost is often a major factor when looking at medical alert systems, especially if you’re on a fixed income. The more stable the pricing, the more likely a system is to remain affordable to those who need it most; if a senior buys the hardware and pays for monitoring, they may not be able to afford any price increases at the end of the year.

How much does a medical alert cost per month?

The average monthly cost for a monitored medical alert system is between $30 and $90 per month, and some unmonitored medical alert systems don’t require monthly fees at all. Many companies offer both month-to-month service and contract periods. A monthly fee may be much more affordable than a lump-sum annual payment.

Are medical alert systems covered by Medicare or Medicaid?

Medicare does not cover the costs associated with medical alert systems. Depending on where you live, Medicaid might cover part of the cost. However, you could qualify for reimbursement from your Long-Term Care Insurance provider.

Are medical alert systems tax deductible?

The Internal Revenue Service doesn’t specifically itemize medical alert systems as eligible for tax deductions. However, many medical expenses are tax deductible, and a tax professional can help you figure out if you can deduct a medical alert system on your tax filings.

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ConsumerAffairs

ConsumerAffairs is a consumer news and reviews site founded in 1989. ConsumerAffairs is the service to use for life’s important purchases. They provide expert resources and verified reviews to help you make smarter buying decisions.

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