A medical alert system is an in-home or mobile device most often used by the elderly to ensure they do not go unattended in the event of an emergency.
Medical alert systems have undergone near continual refinement during their 30+ year history. Today, they are high-tech devices that can read vital signs, detect falls, and call for help without any physical input from the user.
There are dozens of medical alert systems on the market today, and separating the wheat from the chaff can be a chore. So we’ve done the hard work for you and compiled the following list of the best medical alert systems of 2020.
1. Medical Guardian Freedom
Lots of seniors understand the need for a mobile medical alert device but don’t want to advertise that they’re wearing one. The Freedom smartwatch enables older folks to obtain the protection they need in a discreet, even fashionable way.
What we like: We like the discrete nature of the device and the fact that it’s light and comfortable. We like the flawless GPS tracking, fast responses, and the fact that others can send helpful reminder messages.
Flaws: The monthly fees are on the high end of the market. And there’s no fall detection.
2. Medical Alert
It’s easy to get intimidated by some of the complex, feature-heavy medical alert plans out there. For those who like to keep things simple, there’s Medical Alert with their ‘Home Landline’, ‘Home No Landline’, and ‘On the Go’ plans. Each is straightforward as can be and very affordable.
What we like: We like that they refine the service to 3 plans. We like the reasonable cost and that they offer a yearly discount. And the response times from the monitoring center are dependably quick.
Flaws: There isn’t much in the way of bells and whistles. And their mobile service costs considerably more than their home service.
3. Philips Lifeline GoSafe 2
Sometimes the GPS technology that makes medical alert devices possible can be a little hit-or-miss. That’s not the case with Philips Lifeline GoSafe 2. The company uses multiple technologies to pinpoint your exact location at all times.
What we like: This is one of the few mobile devices that come with fall protection built-in. We also like that they employ a multitude of location systems. The audio quality on the device is also first-rate.
Flaws: While it’s nice to have that built-in fall protection, you’re going to pay for its inclusion. Also, if family members wish to keep tabs on where mom or dad are, they won’t be able.
The LifeFone offers a multitude of options that include medication reminder beeps, daily check-in calls, the ability to allow loved ones to monitor your location, and much more. But even if you’re not of a mind to load up on options, the basic service is still dependable and easy to use.
What we like: We like the medication reminder and the daily check-in call. We appreciate the range of the mobile device, and that the response center is reliably fast. Oh yeah, and the free spousal coverage is another plus.
Flaws: The devices are technically sound and dependable, but the service is relatively expensive.
If you are at all familiar with the Jitterbug smartphone for seniors, then you have at least a passing familiarity with GreatCall medical alert system. Plenty of seniors like the technological convergence, as it enables both standard and emergency communications in one device.
What we like: We appreciate the reasonable pricing, the dependably quick response, and the dual nature of their cell phones. And we like the simplicity of the 5Star help button.
Flaws: Those looking for a tabletop device are going to be disappointed. And there is no fall detection.
6. LifeStation At Home
LifeStation is another fairly simple and straightforward service. It doesn’t offer a lot of bells and whistles, but what it does it does exceptionally well. Response times are among the best you’ll find, and the no-nonsense setup is going to appeal to a lot of seniors who don’t appreciate wrestling with high tech devices.
What we like: We appreciate the plug and play nature of this device. We appreciate that the response center calls others if it can’t communicate directly with you. And the quality of the audio on the two-way radio is routinely excellent.
Flaws: Their mobile pendant has surprisingly limited range. And the help button is smaller than we’d like it to be.
7. MobileHelp Classic
Sometimes a person needs a powerful in-home medical alert system. Sometimes what they need is a first-rate mobile device. And sometimes they need both. If that sounds like you, then you should check out the MobileHelp Classic. This system gives you the option of home, away, or home and away packages.
What we like: We appreciate that they offer a combo in-home and mobile systems. We like that the help button on the desktop device is make-no-mistake large. The LCD screen is also easy to read.
Flaws: It’s not cheap. Although you do get a 30 day no-obligation trial period.
The ResponseNow Belle+ mobile, one-touch medical alert pendant goes wherever you go and offers dependable coverage no matter where you roam. Belle+ can also be used in the home and is entirely waterproof.
What we like: We like that it’s waterproof and can be worn in the shower, where so many accidents happen. We appreciate that it offers fall detection. And that the fall detection software is some of the best available.
Flaws: Response times, while good, are not always as fast as some other services. And if you decide to opt-out, you may incur early termination charges.
9. Get Safe Medical Alert
Seniors who travel sometimes discover that their medical alert system doesn’t travel with them. But that’s not the case with Get Safe Medical Alert. The company has a comprehensive nationwide network that is never more than one touch of the help button away. And fall protection is also available.
What we like: The fact that they have a nationwide monitoring network is great for active seniors. The mobile device is small enough to slip in your shirt pocket. And we appreciate that they offer fall protection, albeit at an additional cost.
Flaws: As it’s strictly voice-activated, people with speech impairments won’t be able to use it effectively.
10. Bay Alarm Medical
The last of our best medical alert systems is this affordable, powerful system from Bay Alarm Medical. This is undoubtedly one of the best values out there, with the basic monthly home system checking in at less than 20 bucks. They also offer a mobile option that won’t drain your bank account.
What we like: We like the low monthly price and the versatility of the system. The fact that response times are dependably first-rate makes it an even better value. The mobile device uses GPS to direct emergency responders, and it’s also fairly discreet.
Flaws: The performance of the GPS system can sometimes be a bit iffy. And when you start adding optional features, the price goes up quickly.
Who Needs a Medical Alert System?
There are more seniors than ever these days who are taking care of themselves. But the fact remains that once you pass a certain age, the old adage “better safe than sorry” takes on added significance. That age is about 65. After which time, it makes sense to have an extra layer of protection on hand just in case. And this is true even if you lift weights, take the stairs and don’t drink or smoke.
For seniors who, for one reason or another, are not in the best of shape, the need for a medical alert system is even more pressing. Falls are a major health concern for seniors (1) and studies show that about 50% of falls are 2nd or 3rd falls (2). If those who fall are not attended to quickly, the fall could wind up being the downward turning point in their life. So having a medical alert system that can detect falls (as many do) is vitally important.
Those with chronic health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, or rheumatoid arthritis should also have a medical alert system on hand. Not having one could literally make the difference between life and death in many cases. And finally, elderly people who live alone should have one of these systems on hand regardless of their current physical condition.
How We Ranked
To compile our list, we reached out to health professionals and asked what they would look for in a medical alert device. Their input then informed the choices we made for our list.
One of the things they emphasized was that, if the person in question is active, the service should have a large coverage area. Many seniors enjoy getting out of the house. But just because they’re up and around doesn’t mean they’re immune to potential problems. They must be able to summon help quickly regardless of where they are. Of course, for those who spend most of their time at home, this is not such a pressing issue.
Another important consideration is whether the company offering the service focuses on medical alert systems or if it’s just one of numerous products they offer. It’s always preferable if the company is committed to their medical alert system and leaves things like home security to others. It’s also important that the system utilizes the latest technology. And not simply recycle technology from 10 years ago.
In addition, the company must have transparent pricing plans. Making technology purchases can be confusing enough without having to sift through the fine print to find out what you’ll actually be paying. If a company is cagey about their pricing, they didn’t make our list. Likewise, if the online purchasing mechanism provided confusing or contradictory information about pricing, that system did not make our list.
And finally, a medical alert system isn’t much good if the battery life is short. With recent advances in battery technology there’s no reason the battery shouldn’t last at least 24 hours. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are also a smarter choice these days than disposable batteries.
Medical alert systems are affordable. Of course some are more affordable than others. But the point is that if you are on a budget, it is still possible to get a high-quality medical alert system that won’t force you to choose between safety and eating (3). Before you purchase one of these systems, you should also check to see if your insurance will cover some or all of the cost. Some private insurers will.
Medical alert systems are easy to use. At least the best ones are. And that’s the way it should be. A person shouldn’t need an engineering degree to be able to use their medical alert system. After all, the rest of us can take advantage of all types of plug-and-play technology. So there’s no good reason why a medical alert system should be any more difficult to set up and use than an Xbox controller. Keep in mind that medical alert systems tend to get more complicated to set up if they are integrated into larger systems, like home security systems. This is another reason to buy a stand-alone medical alert product.
Medical alert systems provide lots of options. 30 years ago, medical alert systems were in their infancy, and your choices were limited. Who could forget “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” which became a cultural phenom in the late 80s (4). Today, however, if you’ve fallen, it’s likely your medical alert system will notify emergency services for you. Not only that, but some will also relay critical health data about you to the EMTs so that they arrive fully prepared to deal with the situation. Also, you have your choice of local, regional, or nationwide services. And you can choose between a device you wear and one that is set on a dresser or table in the house.
Medical alert systems provide round the clock coverage. The chances of a medical emergency don’t disappear when the sun goes down. So the coverage from your medical alert system doesn’t either. Take falls, for instance. Most people assume that falls occur during the day when seniors are out running errands or working around the house. But studies show that 20% of all falls occur during the middle of the night (5) when seniors get up to use the bathroom. Having a medical alert system on the job 24/7 provides much needed round the clock protection.
Medical alert systems have lots of features. Today’s best medical alert systems do more than just alert EMTs to an emergency. Many can be worn throughout the day and provide important real-time health information such as heart rate, calories burned, step count, temperature, and more. Wearable devices also keep track of the person’s location via GPS. This way, if an emergency occurs, the responders know exactly where the person is so they can reach them in a timely fashion. Some medical alert systems today are also waterproof so they can be worn in the bathroom, where many falls typically occur (6).
Medical alert systems let you sleep easier. Insomnia in older folks is a big problem (7). Sometimes it is related to chronic health conditions like arthritis. But other times, the individual can’t sleep because they worry that no one will know if something happens to them at night. Medical alert systems that provide 24-hour watch can help worried seniors sleep a little easier. This, in turn, will help reduce the possibility that they will suffer an accident during the day caused by a lack of sleep. Good sleep will also help the elderly person stay more mentally alert (8).
Medical alert systems allow seniors to stay in their own home. In a large percentage of cases, families decide to move an elderly relative to an assisted living facility out of fear. Fear of what would happen if the loved one had an accident in the house when no one was around (9). But in many cases, the elderly person does not want to leave their home because they are in basically good health for their age. What to do? In cases such as this, where both sides have valid arguments, a medical alert system can be the saving grace. It provides the family with the peace of mind that their loved one is being watched. And it allows the older person to retain their independence.
Medical alert systems are available for any budget. Due to the wide variety of medical alert systems now on the market, it’s possible to pick up a good one for a reasonable price. Some can be had for less than $20 per month. And it’s also possible, as we mentioned earlier, that your private insurance may cover some or all of the cost. So don’t dismiss the idea of getting one because you’re convinced you can’t afford it. You probably can.
Medical alert systems can go with you inside or out. Another great aspect of today’s medical alert systems is that many are mobile. That is, they go with you wherever you go. This is a major step up from the devices of the not-too-distant past that were almost all tethered to the homestead. Now, if you feel like going to see the kids or grandkids, want to go to dinner with friends, want to take a trip, or just want to go for a walk in the park, you’re covered.
Medical alert systems could save your life. This is obviously the biggest and most important reason for investing in a medical alert system. Older folks, especially those who live alone or are alone for long stretches of time, need to be able to alert emergency responders in the event of a crisis. But they aren’t always able to get to a phone. And even if they could they might not have been able to convey their situation clearly to the dispatcher (10). Today, however, that has changed. Often times, the system will send vital information with only minimal prompting from the individual. In the case of falls, some will automatically call for an ambulance.
Q: What is a medical alert system?
A: A medical alert system is an electronic device that enables users to notify the appropriate response personnel in the event of a health emergency. Sometimes called ’emergency response systems’, they are responsible for saving an untold number of lives every year. And with their continual refinement and ever-increasing market penetration, they are quickly becoming must-have items for the contemporary home.
Q: Who should have a medical alert system?
A: While seniors are an obvious choice for medical alert systems, the fact is, others can benefit from them as well. They are a good idea for homes where there may be a diabetic, where someone suffers from mobility issues (11), or where someone is recovering from an accident or surgery. Anything that can be done to reduce emergency response times for these people should be done. That includes having a medical alert system on hand.
Q: What specific features should I look for?
A: That will depend on the condition of the person for whom the device is being acquired. If you are in apparently robust health, you may just want to have a system like this on hand as a precaution. You may just want to monitor your blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, and the like as a precautionary measure. Or, if your need is more acute, you may want a device more tailored to your specific needs. If you have difficulty speaking, you will want to avoid a voice-activated system. If you live alone, you may want a system that will provide daily check-ins from the medical alert response team. That will not only help ensure that you are okay, but it will help alleviate feelings of isolation.
Q: How does fall protection work?
A: Some medical alert systems automatically alert emergency responders if they detect a person has fallen. No calls are necessary, and the injured person does not need to physically activate anything to get help. Responding quickly and effectively to falls is particularly important. Most fall detection devices link a gyroscope to a bit of software. When the gyroscope detects movement, it sends the info to the software for processing. If the software determines the movement is severe enough to suggest a fall, it sends a signal to the device, which automatically alerts emergency services.
Q: Will Medicaid pay for a medical alert system?
A: In most cases, Medicare will not cover the cost of a medical alert system. This is believed to be, at least in part, a legacy oversight. Given that the technology is still relatively new, Medicare simply hasn’t caught up with the times. Which wouldn’t be shocking considering how long it typically takes to make changes to this immense system. That said, it may be possible to be reimbursed for a medical alert system if you have a Medicare Advantage (12) policy. Medicare Advantage plans are issued by private insurers and cover everything original Medicare covers. But they also have the ability to offer extras you can’t get through original Medicare. And in some cases, that means they’ll cover a medical alert system. ‘Some cases’ being the operative phrase.
Q: Can I deduct a medical alert system from my taxes?
A: This is not a question with a simple yes or no answer. There is nothing in the tax code that specifically mentions medical alert systems. That said, there is nothing that specifically rules out deducting the cost from your taxes either. The general rule when it comes to deducting medical expenses is that, if a doctor prescribes the device, medicine, or therapy, you can deduct it. Therefore, if you can get your doctor to sign on to the idea that you need to have one of these devices, then you may find Uncle Sam agreeable with letting you deduct it. There is also provision made in the tax code for deducting home improvements related to medical necessity. As such, you may be able to deduct the medical alert system as a necessary home improvement.
Q: Does fall detection actually work?
A: No fall system is 100% accurate all of the time. And their performance is considered uneven in most cases. But the possibility of an occasional false alarm should not discourage you from getting a medical alert system with a fall detector. They are particularly important for older women who are more likely than men to suffer osteoporosis (13) and endure broken bones as a result.
Q: Do medical alert systems use GPS?
A: Yes. Most of today’s best medical alert systems use GPS (14). This is particularly important for mobile devices that you wear around your neck or wrist. Without GPS, a stricken individual would need to tell the emergency responder exactly where they are. And this is simply not always going to be possible. A person may have suffered a heart attack and be incapacitated. There may have had a stroke affecting their ability to speak. They may be unconscious for some reason. Or they may simply be lost. In any event, GPS can tell the responders precisely where the individual is, and this could be the difference between life and death.
Q: Who responds to the medical alert system call?
A: The answer depends in part on your type of emergency. If the situation can be resolved without the intervention of EMTs, the response team may alert a nearby loved one or designated neighbor. These are the people on the contact list you submitted to the company at the time you purchased and setup your account. If the need is more serious, the police, fire department, or ambulance service will be dispatched, depending on your exact needs.
Q: Does Medicare pay for the ambulance if one is called?
A: In most cases, yes, Medicare will cover the cost of the ambulance as long as you are over 65 and enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B (15). There are caveats, however. Medicare will only pay for the ambulance to take you to the nearest medical center capable of handling your emergency. If you instruct the ambulance to take you somewhere else that is further away, you will be responsible for any additional charges.
Q: What happens if someone hits the button by mistake?
A: Mistakes happen. The companies that run these systems are well aware of that. If you or someone else hits the call button by mistake just tell the person from the monitoring center that’s what it was; a mistake. This type of thing happens all the time. Curious grandkids, and even dogs and cats, are frequent offenders. So there is no need to worry. And you will not incur any charges due to a mistaken call.
Q: Do medical alert systems work even if the power goes out?
A: Medical alert systems that draw power from the house are equipped with back batteries in case of a blackout. In most cases, the batteries will provide at least 3 or 4 days of power. Once the power comes back on the system automatically switches back to the home power source, and the battery begins to recharge. In the event of extended blackouts, the response center will typically notify police or other authorities of your situation before your batteries are fully drained.
Q: What exactly is a ‘lockbox’?
A: For older folks who live alone, keeping the house locked at all times is a necessity. This, however, presents a problem. If the person has a medical emergency and is incapacitated, and the medical alert system works as intended, who is going to let the EMTs in when they arrive? The answer is ‘they are’, as long as you install a lockbox on the outside of the house. Real estate agents have long used lockboxes as a way to gain access to a home to show potential buyers when the seller is away (16). They are a small safe tucked away discreetly outside that holds a key to the house. These days they are being used more and more as a complement to a medical alert device.
Q: Should you use an in-home or mobile system?
A: There are many different medical alert systems on the market, but they can all be divided into either in-home or mobile devices. In-home systems are best for those who typically spend the vast majority of their time at home and rarely venture out without accompaniment. Mobile medical alert systems are best for active adults who go out regularly both by themselves and in the company of others. Even an older person who seems in relatively good health should have a mobile medical alert device with them whenever they go out, just in case.
Medical alert systems have come a long way since the days of “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”. Today, they are high-tech digital devices driven by software and fully capable of alerting emergency responders without any input from the user. At the same time, the medical alert system has been unchained from the home.
There are scores of mobile medical alert devices now that slip around the wrist or hang pendant-style around the neck of the user. Some keep tabs on vital bodily processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, and more and will set off an alarm should these health markers wander into dangerous territory. Others will automatically alert emergency services should the person fall to the ground for whatever reason.
The wisdom of older individuals having a medical alert system is beyond dispute. But the bottom line is that they can be an invaluable addition to any home where someone has an acute health condition.
For cpoe.org’s #1 recommended medical alert system, click here.