Is a Medical Alert Worth It?

Colin GrubbApr 27, 2015

According to the National Council on Aging, falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for older Americans. Apart from the immediate health threat, they can also seriously impair the ability to live independently. Impact on quality of life doesn't stop there, however, as many elderly find themselves limiting their activities and social engagements for fear of falling, resulting in further physical decline, depression, social isolation, and deep feelings of helplessness.

The 2.8 million older people hospitalized each year for fall-related injuries puts their direct medical costs at around $31 billion annually, adjusted for inflation. Though a commonly cited figure is that one out of four senior citizens will experience a fall each year, the true number is likely quite higher, as some studies find that less than half of fallers will tell their doctor. While it's true that medical alerts are primarily marketed towards the elderly, many consumers underestimate the utility and security that comes with owning a medical alert system in other types of situations.

How Effective Are Medical Alerts, Do They Work?

A medical alert system is only effective when it's worn consistently and actually used. Research shows that in many falls, the button is never pressed, due to forgetfulness, trauma, embarrassment, or not wanting to worry others. Fortunately, manufacturers have acknowledged these challenges and are creating systems that are more unobtrusive, lighter, and easier to use. 

The first step when evaluating the wide array of choices currently available on the market is to very carefully consider the wearer's needs and abilities—and how these might change in the future. For instance, a senior citizen with early onset dementia may be able to operate a more sophisticated system today, but this will change in the future as cognition declines, and a simpler device with automatic fall detection may be a better option. Disorders such as aphasia can make communication difficult, and should also be taken into account. 

What Are the Different Types of Alerts to Consider?

While medical alerts were very simple in their infancy, consisting simply of a device work around the neck or wrist with a button which notified a call center when pressed, modern alerts can offer a much higher level of interaction and features. Most systems still generally include a device worn around the neck, wrist, or belt, which connects to a base in the user's home. Many providers also offer remote cellular connection, so that the user can stay safe when outside of the range of the home base. 

Some companies offer automatic fall detection, and two-way communication with the monitoring center. Still others provide useful cell phone apps for caregivers and family members, with monitoring, text alerts, and even notifications if the alert user forgets to wear the device or varies their regular activities. 

A few features you might require from the system include the following:

  • Call for help. Wearable devices with buttons to push for help may connect to a live person or directly to emergency services. These generally have a monthly fee for the professional 24/7 monitoring.
  • Fall detection or prevention. The more sophisticated systems provide this with 95% accuracy, distinguishing between falls and regular activity.
  • Medical monitoring. Including medication reminders and monitoring health vitals. This can be an excellent feature for people with a serious, ongoing medical condition.
  • GPS location detection and tracking. If the user lives independently, this provides an extra measure of coverage. It can also be useful when dealing with dementia or cognitive disability, which may cause the user to wander off and possibly get lost. 
  • Activity monitoring. Motion detectors and beacons that track movement in the home. Some systems send alerts to caregivers if the user engages in activities outside of their daily routine.
  • Daily check-in services. Via a live person or electronic check-in
  • Fitness tracking. This can include built-in step counters, and other tools offering information and health challenges
  • Home security monitoring. Some systems take their monitoring a step further and also detect for fire, smoke and carbon monoxide

Other considerations include the device's battery life, ease of use, range, mobility and connectivity, as well as any additional technological perks or requirements. 

How Much Do Medical Alert Systems Cost?

Medical alert system costs depend, in the first place, on whether you choose to simply purchase the device and conduct your own monitoring (generally via call routing to emergency contacts), or whether you prefer to pay a monthly fee for professional, 24/7 call center monitoring. Costs will also rise as more bells and whistles are added on, such as cellular connectivity, GPS tracking, health monitoring, etc. 

Every company charges a little bit differently for their systems. Some only charge a monthly monitoring fee, whereas others also factor in a device fee. Additional costs can appear in the form of an activation fee, cancellation fee, or a contract, which can be as short-lived as 90 days, or extend up to 36 months.

Are the Devices Difficult to Install?

Installing medical alert systems is simple across the board, requiring nothing more involved than finding a central spot in the home for the base station, and then connecting it to the landline and power supply (as well as installing batteries in case of a power outage). The devices (bracelets, pendants, or clip-ons) generally come already pre-programmed to communicate with the base station. If the system you've purchased has health or home security monitoring, you may also need to place the associated sensors around the home. In a few cases, professional installation may be required. 

Final Verdict: Are Medical Alerts Worth It?

Accidents happen every day. But while for a younger person a fall usually has no lasting effects, for older individuals it can mean serious, even life-threatening injury, beyond the fall itself. People who lie helpless for hours or days can suffer serious complications, including but not limited to dehydration, hypothermia, pressure ulcers, muscle breakdown, and renal failure.

There’s no guarantee that in the event of a fall a person will be within reach, or physically capable of reaching a telephone to call for help. Medical alert systems remove that risk, because a responder button can be on your person at all times in the event of a fall. 

Another situation in which a medical alert can be the difference between life and death is in the case of a stroke (the fifth leading cause of death in the United States) or a heart condition (the first cause). The chance of having a stroke approximately doubles for each decade of life after age 55, particularly for women. When a stroke or cardiac arrest occurs, time is of the essence. Treatment needs to be administered as fast as possible to minimize the damage, which means that minutes can potentially separate life and death. With a medical alert system, you can be assured that help will arrive as fast as possible in the event that you or a loved one become one of the more than 800,000 people who suffer from a stroke each year in the US.

Medical alert systems can also be useful during non-medical emergencies, such as house fires or break-ins. In the event of a fire, it’s entirely possible that an individual’s access to a telephone can be obstructed. This can drastically increase the time it takes for help to arrive, putting possessions, home, and lives at risk. Or even worse, you could be trapped in a room by the fire with no means at all of calling for help. A medical alert system ensures that you will always have the ability to call for help, no matter the situation. If the system you chose monitors the home for smoke or carbon dioxide, their triggering will automatically alert the call center, who can then contact emergency responders.

As you can see, medical alert systems are not only good for seniors, but for anyone with a health concern, in particular those who live independently. Not every company is right for every consumer, which means it’s important to do your research before committing to any particular product. But when you find the right fit for yourself or your loved ones, you can rest easy knowing that help is just the push of a button away.