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How Exactly Do Medical Alert Systems Work?

Allison DeMajistre
a woman holding a cell phone in a living room
Medical alert systems are easy to install and simple to use, helping seniors stay safe and independent at home

Medical alert systems are frequently featured in advertisements and commercials, yet the real-life accounts of their life-saving capabilities often go untold. Take Gloria, for example. While she doesn't recall the exact moment the dispatcher from her medical alert company contacted her daughter and emergency services, she vividly remembers the aftermath. After collapsing from a diabetic coma in the dead of night, her device's fall detection feature promptly alerted the dispatch center. Today, Gloria proudly proclaims, "It's not just a device; it's my most cherished piece of jewelry and the best investment I've ever made!"

Selecting the right medical alert system can be a daunting task, given the plethora of monitoring systems, devices, and features available. Questions like, "Should I opt for a monitored or unmonitored system?", "Will it function when I'm away from home?", and "What are the costs involved?" are paramount when making a decision.

It's undeniable that as we age, our safety takes precedence. Despite our best efforts to remain cautious, accidents like falls are unpredictable and can result in prolonged hospitalizations, surgeries, and subsequent health complications due to inactivity. Therefore, investing time and resources in choosing the ideal medical alert system is not just about convenience—it's a decision that directly impacts your well-being and peace of mind.

Types of Medical Alert Systems

As you consider investing in a medical alert system, understanding the diverse options available is crucial to ensure you select one that aligns with your lifestyle and specific needs.

Monitored Medical Alert Systems

Monitored systems are equipped with dedicated agents and dispatchers who are on standby, ready to assist once the alert button is activated. Upon pressing the button, a dispatcher will communicate with you to evaluate the situation. In emergencies, they can promptly dial 911 for you. For less urgent situations, like needing assistance from a family member, the agent will contact your designated family member. While these systems come with a monthly fee, they often offer added features such as medication reminders, fall detection, or even complimentary coverage for another resident. They are ideal for individuals seeking the assurance of swift connection to the necessary help.

Unmonitored Medical Alert Systems

Activating an unmonitored medical alert system directly calls a predetermined contact—be it a family member, friend, neighbor, or 911. While they don't offer the comprehensive protection of monitored systems (for instance, your emergency contact might overlook the alert or you might not always need 911), they are a valuable tool for those who prefer a simpler setup without the need for a dispatch center. It's a more basic safety net, but certainly better than having no system in place.

At-Home Medical Alert Systems

Designed primarily for indoor use, at-home systems feature a central base station connected to either a landline or cellular network. Users typically wear a pendant or wristband equipped with an emergency button. Additionally, buttons can be strategically placed in high-risk areas like showers or bedrooms. If opting for a cellular-connected system, it's vital to ensure the chosen provider offers robust coverage in your locality. These systems are especially beneficial for seniors with limited mobility, primarily residing within their homes or immediate outdoor spaces like gardens.

On-the-Go Medical Alert Systems

Tailored for active seniors, on-the-go systems offer protection both at home and outside. These battery-operated devices often incorporate GPS technology, enabling monitoring centers and loved ones to pinpoint your location during emergencies. Available in various forms, from necklaces and smartwatches to smartphones, many of these devices are now designed with a modern aesthetic, allowing users to wear them discreetly and stylishly.

How Medical Alert Systems Work

Medical alert systems are designed for simplicity in both usage and installation. Setting up an at-home system typically involves connecting the base unit to a power source and linking it to a landline or cellular network. Meanwhile, on-the-go systems might require an initial charge but are generally ready for immediate use. Despite the variety, the core functionality of most medical alert systems remains consistent.

1. Activating the Emergency Button

Both in-home and mobile systems come equipped with an emergency button, designed to swiftly alert either 911 or your designated emergency contact. For the active senior demographic, medical alert buttons are available in various forms, including:

  • Pendant
  • Wristband
  • Smartwatch
  • Smart Phone

2. Establishing a Connection

Upon pressing the emergency button, the system initiates a connection. For those with monitored systems, this means direct communication with a dispatch center agent. In contrast, unmonitored systems will automatically notify and potentially dispatch either emergency services or your chosen emergency contact.

3. Assessing the Situation

For monitored systems, once connected, you can relay your specific emergency or concern to the agent, who will then determine the appropriate response. On the other hand, with unmonitored systems, the typical response might involve a call from a concerned family member or the immediate arrival of emergency services to your location.

4. Prompt Assistance Ensured

One of the standout benefits of a medical alert system is its promise of rapid assistance. Regardless of whether you have a monitored or unmonitored system, you can rest assured that help is en route, alleviating the distress of facing emergencies alone.

Common Components and Features of a Medical Alert System

When contemplating a medical alert system, it's essential to familiarize yourself with the array of features available. Each component is designed to cater to specific needs, ensuring that users receive optimal protection. Here's a comprehensive breakdown to guide your decision-making process:

1. Base Station

Often referred to as the "nerve center" of an at-home medical alert system, the base station facilitates two-way communication with the monitoring center through its integrated speakerphone. Ideally positioned centrally, it ensures seamless signal detection upon activating the emergency button. Equipped with a power cord and backup batteries, it remains functional during power outages. For landline connections, it plugs into the phone jack, while cellular connections require a strong signal spot.

2. Wearable Devices

These devices, designed for mobility, effortlessly sync with mobile or "on-the-go" medical alert systems. A simple button press connects users to a monitoring center, where trained professionals dispatch the required assistance. They're especially beneficial for active seniors who frequently venture outdoors.

3. Monitoring Center

Operated by the medical alert system provider, the monitoring center is staffed with specialists trained to handle emergencies and dispatch the necessary aid. On average, these centers boast impressive response times, typically between 30-40 seconds.

4. Fall Detection Technology

Falls are an ever-present risk for seniors, especially those living alone. Timely assistance post-fall can significantly influence recovery outcomes. Advanced wearable devices come equipped with sensors that detect falls, automatically alerting the monitoring center. For those living solo, this feature is invaluable.

5. GPS Location Tracking

Primarily found in mobile devices, GPS tracking enables the monitoring center to pinpoint your exact location during emergencies, ensuring swift assistance. It's a boon for seniors prone to disorientation or wandering, offering families an added layer of reassurance.

6. Outdoor Lock Box

This secure box, positioned outside a residence, houses a key and is safeguarded by a security code. It grants emergency personnel access to the home if the resident is incapacitated. Not only is it a potential lifesaver, but it also prevents expensive damages that could arise from forced entries.

7. Medication Dispenser

Given the complexity of medication regimens many seniors follow, these dispensers are a godsend. While designs vary across providers, the principle remains consistent: a structured box, compartmentalized to hold specific medication doses for designated times. It's an indispensable tool for seniors grappling with memory challenges or visual impairments, ensuring they adhere to their medication schedules accurately.

Is a Medical Alert System Right For You?

Medical alert systems, with their affordability and user-friendly design, offer an invaluable layer of security, ensuring that you and your loved ones can enjoy peace of mind. Renowned companies like Medical Guardian and ADT Health have carved a niche in this domain, consistently delivering safety-centric solutions tailored to fit diverse lifestyles and budgets.

By meticulously evaluating the available plans, you can make an enlightened choice, pinpointing the features and pricing that resonate with your needs. This investment not only bolsters your safety but also empowers you with the autonomy to navigate your home and community with renewed confidence for many more years.

Frequently Asked Questions
Are Medical Alerts FSA Eligible?+-

Although medical alert systems are not specifically eligible for FSA coverage, they could fall under a "medical information plan." According to IRS Publication 502, a medical information plan is a paid service to keep your medical information in a data bank so it can be accessed by medical caregivers when requested, and this service is FSA-eligible. Louise Norris, a licensed Colorado insurance broker, told the National Council on Aging that a medical alert system could be considered a medical information data bank since it maintains a person's medical information so it can be accessed by emergency personnel when needed.

Are Medical Alerts HSA Eligible?+-

Medical alert systems could fall under the same eligibility for an HSA as the FSA if the medical alert system falls under a medical information plan. It is best to ask a licensed insurance professional to review IRS Publication 502 for you to get the best possible information on eligibility and coverage.

Are Medical Alerts Covered by Medicare?+-

Medicare Part A and Part B do not cover medical alert systems. However, Medicare Part C, or Medicare Advantage, may cover at least some of the cost. Plans vary, so again, it is best to check with an insurance professional for accurate information about Medicare coverage of medical alert systems.

Allison DeMajistre
Allison DeMajistre contributes to Top10.com as a freelance medical writer with a decade of clinical experience as a certified critical care registered nurse. She specializes in cardiology and cardiovascular-related medical devices.

The author of this article has been paid by Natural Intelligence to write this article. Neither the author nor Natural Intelligence provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or your local emergency number immediately.