Types of Medical Alert Systems and How They Work

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Medical alert systems can be described by where they’re used (in-home or on the go) and by whom you talk to through the device (a professional monitoring center, a friend, or 911). We’ll break down the terminology so you can choose the system that’s right for you.

What’s a medical alert system and how does it work?

A medical alert system provides you with a button you can push for assistance during an emergency. The help button is usually worn as a pendant or wristband, but you can also place buttons on the walls throughout your home.

A call is placed to a family member, 911, or professional monitoring center within about 30 seconds of pushing a medical alert button. The system's base station or the button itself has a speaker and microphone to facilitate the conversation.

Don't worry if you can't think or speak during your emergency—the person on the other end of the phone takes that a sign that you need immediate help. They'll dispatch someone to your home or GPS location, depending on the type of device you're wearing.

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How does a monitored medical alert system work?

When the button is pressed and held, a monitoring center is alerted. A person will speak to you through the base unit or wearable device. You can talk back and let them know what’s going on. If you just need a friend or family member to stop by, the monitoring center will call them on your behalf. If you need immediate attention, the center will call 911 and dispatch emergency responders.

Monitored medical alert systems require a monthly fee. Your subscription may include additional perks, such as free spouse coverage, medication alerts, daily check-in calls, and replacement batteries.

How does an unmonitored medical alert system work?

When you press and hold the emergency button on an unmonitored medical alert device, it calls a friend, family member, neighbor, or other pre-programmed emergency contact. There’s no monthly fee associated with an unmonitored medical alert device.

Which is better, monitored or unmonitored?

We recommend choosing a monitored system. If your unmonitored system is set up to call a family member, there’s a chance they won’t recognize the number or hear their phone go off. When your device is connected to a professional monitoring center, your call will be answered in seconds, guaranteed.

If your device is set up to call 911, you may not feel well enough to talk to them. The monitoring center keeps a record of your home address along with details about your medical history and the code to get into your spare key lockbox.

If you use a GPS-enabled mobile device, your precise location also transmits to the monitoring center. They can relay all of this information to the emergency responders who won’t waste any time trying to find you or get into your home.

Why can’t I just use my phone?

It’s much easier to push a button than it is to pick up a phone and dial the correct number, especially if your medical emergency leaves you feeling confused or weak.

Plus, a medical alert button is waterproof, so you can wear it in the shower. You definitely can’t do that with your phone.

Why can’t I just tell Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa to dial 911?

These smart hubs can’t call 911 on your behalf, at least not through a voice cue. However, new tech like Alexa Together and Lively's Echo integration make it possible to get help from family members or professional monitors by activating a voice hub.

If your medical emergency makes it difficult to breathe, you won't be able to use a voice-activated device. Plus, the smart hub may not hear you depending on where you are in your home. A wearable button keeps help within reach at all times.

Still, a voice-controlled medical alert system is a great back-up option in case you experience poor mobility. Try a medical alert company like Medical Guardian, GetSafe, or Aloe Care Health if you’re interested in this type of equipment.

What are the different types of medical alert systems?

In addition to monitored vs. unmonitored classifications, the main types of medical alert systems include in-home stations or mobile devices.

In-home medical alert systems

An in-home medical alert system consists of a base station, a wearable device, and optional accessories like wall buttons or voice extenders. The base station functions as a speakerphone, so keep it in a central location where you’ll be able to talk to the monitor if needed. The wearable device only works if it stays near the base station, so it’s best for folks who spend most of their time at home.

Landline vs. cellular in-home alert systems

In-home medical alert systems use either a landline or cellular connection to place calls when the button is pressed. 

  • Landline medical alert systems are more affordable than cellular systems and more reliable in remote areas. 
  • Cellular in-home medical alerts are a little more expensive but usually pair with more accessories, like wall buttons and extra pendants, compared to landline systems. 

Mobile medical alert systems

A mobile medical alert system works outside the home and runs off battery power. 

Mobile alert systems typically include GPS tracking technology. This helps the monitoring center (or your loved ones via a smartphone app) know exactly where you are in an emergency. 

Types of mobile medical alerts

Here are the most common types of mobile medical alert systems (also called GPS medical alerts):

  • Pocket base stations pair with the same necklace or wristband button that you'd wear around your home. The speaker and microphone are in the base station, so don't forget to grab it before you head out the door.
  • All-in-one mobile medical alert devices are worn on a lanyard or belt clip. They're lightweight and let you keep track of just one device. 
  • Medical alert smartwatches include two-way talk and a help button. They're discreet, modern, and usually offer some extra functions like fitness-tracking apps. It's tough to find fall detection in medical alert watches, though.
  • Bluetooth medical alerts use your smartphone to make phone calls once the help button is pressed. They have a long battery life (months at a time) but you have to keep your phone charged up and nearby at all times. 

What is automatic fall detection?

An automatic fall detection device calls the monitoring center if it detects a fall followed by no movement. When the monitor speaks to you and receives no answer, they’ll dispatch emergency responders.

How does the device know I've fallen?

Fall detection devices include a sensor called an accelerometer. The accelerometer measures how fast it moves through space. If it (and you, since you're wearing it) suddenly moves toward the ground faster than normal and then immediately stops moving, it's programmed to connect to the monitoring center. 

But an accelerometer isn't a perfect fall detection sensor. It's prone to false alarms and might not detect a fall at all if it happens too slowly.

That's why the best fall detection devices include at least one other sensor for improved accuracy:1

  • Gyroscope
  • Magnetometer
  • Barometric pressure sensor

What are the limitations of fall detection devices?

Fall detection devices sense only rapid falls. Sliding off a wheelchair, bed, or couch won’t register as a fall. Even if you wear a fall detection device, it’s still a really good idea to have someone call or visit every day to make sure you’re all right and to take proactive measures to prevent falls.

Some medical alert systems use motion sensors or check-in calls as an alternative to fall detection devices. You won't get help quite as fast, but you won't be stranded for days either. 

What’s a personal emergency response system?

A personal emergency response system (PERS) is another name for a medical alert system. The name difference recognizes that not all emergencies are medical in nature. A PERS could be used by someone who feels unsafe walking home, for example.

Do I need Wi-Fi or a cell phone to use a medical alert system?

No. Most medical alert systems connect to cellular data. You don’t need a cell phone, Wi-Fi, or internet for the device to work. You don't even need to pay for a separate cellular data plan—that's provided the medical alert company.


Top 5 medical alert systems

Brand
Best for
Lowest monthly price
In-home range
Backup battery
Landline option available
Learn more
Read review
Best overall1000 ft.32 hrs.
Icon Yes  LightYes
Best GPS tracking options1300 ft.32 hrs.
Icon Yes  LightYes
Best value1300 ft.32 hrs.
Icon No  LightNo
Best for fall detection400 ft.Not available
Icon Yes  LightYes
Best at-home system1,300 ft.32 hrs.
Icon Yes  LightYes
Best basic system1400 ft.24 hrs.
Icon Yes  LightYes

Data effective as of post date. Offers and availability subject to change.

Sources

  1. Falin Wu, International Journal of Telemedicine and Applications, “Development of a Wearable-Sensor-Based Fall Detection System,” 2015. Accessed November 29, 2022.
Cathy Habas
Written by
Cathy Habas
With over eight years of experience as a content writer, Cathy has a knack for untangling complex information. Her natural curiosity and ability to empathize help Cathy offer insightful, friendly advice. She believes in empowering readers who may not feel confident about a purchase, project, or topic. Cathy earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Indiana University Southeast and began her professional writing career immediately after graduation. She is a certified Safe Sleep Ambassador and has contributed to sites like Safety.com, Reviews.com, Hunker, and Thumbtack. Cathy’s pride and joy is her Appaloosa “Chacos.” She also likes to crochet while watching stand-up comedy specials on Netflix.

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