Medical alert systems have embraced the digital age.
They now offer GPS, fall detection sensors, and smartphone integration.
Despite these important advances, the ultimate goal remains the same:
To give you, or the person you care about, freedom from worrying how to call for help in a medical emergency.
If you’re a senior who lives alone, a caregiver for an aging loved one, or anyone with a medical condition that could require immediate action, a medical alert system could make your life easier.
Getting to know the features of these systems, both new and old, will make your shopping process easier and help you get the right system for you.
The Best Medical Alert Systems This Year
How Medical Alert Systems Work
The original medical alert systems a few decades ago included two pieces:
- a stationary base, and
- a remote control the user could wear as a necklace or bracelet
They were fairly basic, and also easy to operate.
Pushing the remote’s button activated the base unit which called 911 or a private monitoring service.
This setup provided a simple and effective way to call for help if you couldn’t physically get to the phone, which back in those days wouldn’t exactly fit in your pocket.
My how things have changed!
Now you can easily carry your phone everywhere you go, which means you should be able to call for help if you have fallen or fall or have another medical emergency.
Benefits of Having a Medical Alert System
Medical alert systems have responded to the cell phone age by upping their game. As technology has evolved, so has the medical alert system industry.
All the best medical alert systems, like the ones featured in this list, have taken advantage of technological improvements and improved the efficiency and usability of their products.
Here are just a few ways medical alert systems have improved over the years:
- They’ve added new features and enhanced old features.
- They’ve made customer service a top priority.
- Recently many providers have stopped requiring long-term contracts.
- In most cases, you no longer have to buy your own equipment.
Today’s Medical Alert System Features
Don’t quite know what to expect with a medical alert system?
Here are a few specifics to consider if you’re not sure whether to invest in a medical alert system for yourself or an aging parent or other senior you care for:
- Waterproof remotes: A lot of falls and other medical emergencies happen when users are in or around the bath or shower. Even if your smartphone is just five feet away on the counter, it may be too far to reach after a fall. You could take a waterproof medical alert system remote into the shower.
- Fall detection: What if someone with a medical alert system falls and becomes unconscious? He or she couldn’t push the button to call for help. Thanks to GPS, medical alert systems can detect sudden movements, which means they can detect a likely fall. When they do, they can send help even if no one pushed a button.
- Speaking of GPS: GPS technology has also allowed medical alert systems to ditch the old two-piece hardware model and its limited range of operation. This is particularly helpful for a patient with dementia who may leave home without the knowledge of his or her caregivers or for active seniors who go out alone often.
- Custom monitoring: Medical alert systems can be programmed to reach out to a pre-programmed emergency contact (such as a relative or a neighbor) instead of calling 911 or a monitoring center. When the senior you care about needs a little assistance but doesn’t need an ambulance, this can be a great feature.
- Professional support: Some of the best modern systems include professional support such as routine equipment and battery testing to make sure the equipment will work when needed.
Finding the Right System for Your Needs
You and your aging or medically fragile family members may not need all of the features above.
For example, if the person who will use the system can’t leave home without help, you may not need to pay more for GPS.
Likewise, if you as a caregiver live in the home or nearby and plan to test and maintain the equipment on a regular basis, you may not need the company to provide these services.
To find the right system at the best price, find out what you need first.
Let’s check out a few scenarios:
You’re Far Away From Aging Loved Ones
Let’s say you visited your aging parent or other loved one recently and noticed a few things that worried you. Your mom tripped on that step into the garage or forgot to turn off the oven a couple times.
Your dad never once unplugged his cell phone from its charger beside the bed. Your parents are still pretty active. You aren’t ready to think about assisted living or in-home help.
But some kind of support would be nice, especially since you live a few hours away.
In situations like this, I’d consider getting most or all of the bells and whistles a modern medical alert system offers:
- Professional monitoring
- GPS-enabled features, and
- Equipment testing
Your Loved One is Physically Healthy But Has Dementia
A friend of mine has a grandmother in this situation: She’s in great shape physically. She’s always been active, even into her late 80s, and her heart is going strong.
Her mind, though, has the family a little worried.
They stopped leaving her home alone a couple years back and recently made the painful decision to take her car keys so she wouldn’t put herself and others in danger.
She responded by sneaking out like a teenager and walking along a busy highway. (She’d seen in the paper chicken breasts were on sale at Walmart and decided to walk the three miles to buy some.)
Everything worked out fine. They got her home safe.
But a GPS-enabled medical alert system would have saved the family a lot of worrying that day.
They could have found their loved one’s location either on a smartphone app or by calling the professional monitoring center.
Sure, you could also make sure your loved one carries a smartphone and skip the GPS-enabled medical alert system bill.
But as anyone who has cared for someone with dementia knows, that’s easier said than done. It’s much easier to use a necklace or bracelet monitor which needs less charging time and is less likely to be lost or forgotten.
You Live Across Town But Could Use a Little Support
If you live near your aging loved one but would still like the freedom to go to work, go shopping, or spend time with your own family without worrying as much, a more basic medical alert system may meet your needs.
You may just want a reliable way for your aging loved ones to reach you quickly and efficiently if they fall or need help in a hurry.
In this case, a classic, two-piece system may still fit the bill.
Even basic systems now come with great features such as battery backup in case the power goes out and cellular or WiFi backup in case the phone lines don’t work.
Seniors who are mobility challenged may also receive the support they need from a basic system like this.
You’re Active but Could Need Immediate Medical Help
Someone of any age with a diagnosis such as diabetes or heart disease could benefit from a modern medical alert system.
Even if you’re good at managing your medical condition and can prevent emergencies, it never hurts to have a little back-up, especially if you drive a lot or take care of young grandchildren.
In this case, I’d skip the classic models and go straight for the new, GPS-enabled one-piece systems you can wear as a watch, necklace, or bracelet.
You may do just fine calling for help on a cellphone, but the simplicity of hitting one button has its appeals depending on how debilitating a medical emergency you experience.
Some Issues to Look Out For
What’s the Range of the Basic System?
If you’re getting a traditional, two-piece system without GPS, make sure the system’s in-home range can cover the entire house, garage, and yard if needed.
Just like the old-fashioned cordless phones you see on Friends or Seinfeld, these systems work only when the remote unit is close enough to the base unit to communicate.
If you’re using the system in a large house, you may need more than one base unit, just like some bigger houses need more than one WiFi router.
You can’t always believe the range specified in a company’s test data, especially if you see terms like “open air” in the testing description.
Few of us live in “open air” houses. In reality, pesky things like walls and ceilings can limit your range.
What Barriers Could Affect a GPS System?
A GPS-based system dodges traditional range issues because it usually includes only one piece, the remote.
But other issues can limit a GPS system:
- More frequent charges: Since the remote does all the work, its battery needs to be charged more often, probably every 24 hours.
- Actual GPS or not?: Some of the systems we looked at said they utilized GPS but they actually used a cell phone signal to extrapolate a client’s location. This method isn’t as efficient, and it requires a good cell signal which you may not have in a rural area or at the far end of a development. Systems that use cellular data and GPS simultaneously offer better results.
- Access to satellites: As anyone who’s used a Garmin or other GPS device knows, your connection to those satellites out there isn’t always constant. As a result, a GPS medical alert system could travel out of range. While this is an acceptable risk for most people, it’s not acceptable if your home is out of range because of trees or other buildings blocking the horizon. Most companies allow you to test a system before committing.
Who’s Doing the Monitoring?
Many medical alert system providers offer professional monitoring much like a home security system.
You’ll pay a monthly fee for this monitoring, and it provides peace of mind knowing someone is standing by waiting to help.
However, you shouldn’t rely on this service without first finding out where the monitoring system is, how well it is staffed, and whether it is available around the clock.
Also, find out how well call centers train their staff members. Some companies use a third party to monitor their systems, which means they don’t have as much control over the monitoring process.
Even with outsourced monitoring centers, look for certifications from Underwriters Laboratories and the Central Station Alarm Association which usually means you’re in good hands. The CSAA’s 5-diamond certification is its top rating.
Some companies have outsourced call responses to other countries. I suggest avoiding these companies since you know even less about the quality of monitoring.
How Will EMT’s or Other Responders Get Inside?
Traditionally, when you call 911 and responders can’t get inside to help, they will break a lock, if necessary, to save your life. Very few of us would complain about the damage.
However, many medical alert system providers now offer lock boxes so responders can access the home via electronic code, which your system’s responders can share with your local emergency responders.
Who Will Test Equipment?
Some of the best medical alert systems test your equipment on a regular basis to make sure everything works properly.
If your provider doesn’t test your gear, you can do it yourself, either deliberately or just by paying close attention:
- Battery life: If you notice a GPS-based unit doesn’t hold its charge all day, it may be time to get a new battery. Traditional two-piece systems tend to have longer battery lives since the remote is passive.
- Back-up batteries: With a traditional base-and-remote system, be sure to also change back-up batteries which kick in when the power goes out.
- Unusual lights: If you see different lights than usual on the base unit or GPS-enabled remote unit, be sure your system isn’t trying to tell you about a problem.
- Just try it out: Often the best way to test a service is to simply use it. Push the button and see what happens. Tell the responder right away you’re just testing things out.
If you’re responsible for maintaining a system for an aging loved one, you should test the equipment at least once a month.
I like to associate these kinds of routine tasks with something else routine, like paying the power bill or changing the HVAC filter.
Will I Pay a Monthly Fee?
A monitored system usually requires a monthly fee. Some companies still require contracts or else encourage longer commitments by offering lower rates.
If you’d rather avoid a monthly bill, look for a provider who allows self-monitoring.
Remember, of course, that self-monitored systems can not help your loved one unless you have someone reliable — yourself or a designee — standing by to help when called upon.
Some self-monitored systems can be programmed to call 911 directly, which is a good idea if you or another friend or family member can’t always be available.
Is Your Loved One Visually or Hearing Impaired?
A medical alert system for someone with special requirements should address these needs.
- Visually impaired: It’s easy enough to find a system with large, easily distinguishable buttons. You could even put a sticker or other texture cue on the button to make sure your loved one knows how to call for help.
- Hearing impaired: This can be trickier since medical alert systems typically depend on two-way communication to assess emergencies. While shopping, be sure to ask service providers how they adapt their systems for the hearing impaired.
- Language barriers: Language barriers can also hinder responders. It should be easy enough to find a service that offers Spanish. It’ll be harder but not impossible to find accommodations for other languages. If this is a problem, a self-monitored service programmed to contact a family member may be a better option.
Top 6 Best Medical Alert Systems for 2019
Since you have a pretty good idea what kind of services you or your aging loved one needs, it’s time to compare service providers and systems.
There are a lot of great options out there in this growing industry. Here are my five favorite companies and systems for this year, all of which offer 24/7 monitoring:
1. Medical Guardian
This Philadelphia-based company checks the boxes I would look for in a medical alert service provider:
- Monitoring: In-house monitoring with 13 U.S.-based call centers and Underwriters Laboratories and Central Station Alarm Association certifications.
- Options: You’ll find a variety of hardware and service options, from the simplest base-remote systems to today’s more advanced GPS remote systems.
- No contracts: I like Medical Guardian’s month-to-month instead of contract-based payments and its lack of equipment fees for most services.
- Solid stuff: The simple base-remote system has 1,300 feet of range and a 32-hour backup battery. AT&T’s cellular network drives the GPS system. Medical Guardian backs its equipment with a lifetime warranty.
Medical Guardian covers the spectrum, from simple systems to the most advanced features including fall detection and waterproof devices which can be worn as pendants, bracelets or even watches.
As a result, you can build a system to meet your specific needs.
I like Medical Guardian’s new Family Guardian package, which allows you to connect your loved one’s monitor to a smartphone app so you can more easily check-in.
You can even connect more than one monitor to your account in case you have more than one senior in the home.
Medical Guardian also recently released its own smartwatch. It works as a medical alert system and also specializes in keeping track of other medical information.
Turn-offs could include AT&T’s cellular network if you happen to live in an area where the network isn’t as strong. AT&T has invested a lot in its wireless network over the past decade, though, so most people should be OK.
2. Bay Alarm Medical
Bay Alarm has provided medical alert systems for more than seven decades. The California-based company compares well with Medical Guardian in most areas.
Advantages include the option of using Verizon’s cellular network for mobile systems. You can also opt for AT&T’s network.
Bay Alarm’s GPS system also can work up to 72 hours without a charge, which is noticeably higher than most of its competitors.
And, the company has pioneered an in-car system for more active seniors or anyone who has a medical condition that could require attention quickly.
You could make a case for rating Bay Alarm ahead of Medical Guardian, but I still like Medical Guardian’s flexibility and adaptability.
I’m also just a tiny bit concerned about Bay Alarm’s outsourced response centers. The centers are U.S.-based and certified by UL and CSAA, so you shouldn’t be left out in the cold.
We just believe in-house monitoring gives customers the most reliable service.
Bay Alarm does offer a 14-day free trial period for its GPS system, which gives you a great way to try things out before making a commitment.
Speaking of commitments, Bay Alarm does not require a long-term contract but you do get a price break on the GPS system by committing to half a year or more.
Florida-based MobileHelp also compares well with Medical Guardian and Bay Alarm, offering no-contract services and reasonable monthly rates.
MobileHelp specializes in fall detection and other GPS-equipped systems, so the company may not suit your needs if you’re shopping for a classic system.
In fact, the simplest service will not work on a landline, and its remote range is only 600 feet.
AT&T powers MobileHelp’s GPS equipment, and it seems to work well. Customers have reported satisfaction with the fall detection feature, for example.
A few people have even been concerned the fall detector is too sensitive, resulting in false alarms.
MobileHelp also outsources its alarm monitoring, seemingly with positive results:
The company boasts a 17-second response time, which is faster than most of its competitors which typically respond in 30 seconds or so.
Just like Bay Alarm, MobileHelp’s outsourced monitoring centers maintain UL and CSAA credentials which would let me worry less about the outsourced service.
You can try out the system for 30 days free of charge and pay month to month without a contract, though you will be charged $350 for the equipment if you don’t send it back after canceling.
New Jersey-based LifeStation has more than 40 years experience in the field. LifeStation staffs its own UL and CSAA-certified monitoring centers, which gives it the ability to check in weekly with customers.
If you live in a different town from the seniors you care for, this service can reduce your need to test equipment on a regular basis. In fact, LifeStation takes pride in equipment maintenance.
It even tests and replaces batteries at no charge.
Another great feature if you’re away from the home is LifeStation’s “Find My Loved One” option.
You can text the call center and immediately get your loved one’s location (assuming the senior you love is wearing the pendant or bracelet!).
LifeStation also trains its staff members for a variety of scenarios they may encounter when a customer calls for help. LifeStation doesn’t require a contract, but you’ll get a better rate if you commit to a longer term.
A lot of complaints about LifeStation relate to its billing practices. When you pay upfront to get a lower rate, for example, it can be hard to get a refund if you need to cancel the service.
The company advertises a 30-day money-back guarantee for any of its services.
5. Medical Alert
Medical Alert is the nation’s largest provider of medical alert equipment, in part because its parent company, Connect America, serves many hospitals and assisted living facilities.
Its in-home services hold up well compared to leading competitors. Medical Alert has its own solid network of call centers which have earned UL and CSAA certifications.
The company offers solid equipment at competitive prices.
You won’t need to sign a long-term contract, but you can get a price break by paying quarterly, semi-annually, or annually.
Medical Alert also offers modern features like fall detection and smartphone integration for caregivers. AT&T powers these services.
The company’s classic two-piece system has only 600 feet of range so placing it in a centrally located area of a home will be essential. The base unit’s backup battery should last about three days, which is longer than most competitors’ units.
6. Philips Lifeline
Philips is a well-respected name in medical technology, and the Philips Lifeline medical alert system seems to live up.
The company pioneered the fall-detection devices most every company now offers. Philips lists a 95 percent success rate with its devices.The company also stands out because of its in-house monitoring which has built-in tiers of response levels.
If you push the call button but only need non-medical help, Philips Lifeline’s operators can contact a neighbor or a friend for you.
Of course, if you need medical help they will be able to respond appropriately.
The company’s systems and monthly fees tend to be higher compared to the other providers on this list, but customers tend to be satisfied with the product.
Philips Lifeline does not require a contract; only a 30-day cancelation notice.
Like most other services we’ve reviewed, AT&T powers Philips Lifeline’s mobile products.
Other Options to Consider for Medical Alert Systems
Any of the six companies above should be able to provide the services you or your family members need.
They all have good ratings from the Better Business Bureau which means their customer service departments should be able to help resolve issues you may have.
Every year, more companies join the growing market for medical alert systems.
If you’re considering a company that’s not on this list, here’s a checklist to consider:
- Monitoring: Look for UL and/or CSAA certifications and in-house monitoring when possible. If a company outsources monitoring, make sure the monitoring service is still domestic and certified.
- Payments: You shouldn’t need to sign a long-term contract anymore, though you may want to take advantage of the lower rates companies offer when you pay annually or quarterly. Be careful, though. If you need to cancel the service it can be hard to get a refund when you’ve already paid a lump sum.
- Equipment fees: Be sure to ask how much you’re expected to pay, if any, for equipment. Some companies offer free equipment with an annual commitment or charge only for GPS equipment. Avoid surprises by finding out in advance.
- Online reviews: Online reviews can tell you a lot, but remember you aren’t getting the whole story since dissatisfied customers are a lot more likely to post reviews online. That being said, if you see the same issue being raised regularly, take notice.
- BBB ratings: The Better Business Bureau and services like TrustPilot give you a more tempered view of a company’s customer service since they include a company’s responses.
- Response times: I didn’t go into response times much in this post since the best companies tend to respond in the same general time frame of 20 to 30 seconds. When looking at other companies, though, be sure to ask about response times.
- Battery life: This isn’t a make-or-break issue but it’s still something you’ll want to know about in advance. If you have trouble keeping a smartphone charged, for example, you may want to shop for a GPS medical alert device with a longer battery life.
A Medical Alert System Should Fit the Way You Live
The issues we’ve discussed in this post will matter as you shop for a medical alert system for yourself or a loved one.
Ultimately, though, it’s up to you to make sure the features and capabilities of a system match your needs.
So look around, ask questions, test out the GPS and other features before committing to a system.
And follow up with routine testing to make sure the system you depend on will be dependable when you need its help.