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What to look for in a medical alert system

What to look for in a medical alert system

You’ve probably seen the ads on TV and in magazines: How do you get help in a medical emergency when you’re alone at home? The makers of medical alert systems promise that their products will come to the rescue, whether you’ve fallen and you can’t get up or you’re experienc­ing symptoms of a heart attack, stroke, or seizure. The ads are reaching a receptive audience: Sales of med-alert services are growing as the baby boom generation ages.

Medical alert systems were introduced in the 1970s as simple push-button devices worn around the neck. They summoned help by signaling a base station connected to a home phone line that would alert a call-center operator. Today’s systems are still wearable, but you can also mount help buttons throughout the home that allow for two-way voice communication with call centers. Some offer motion-­sensitive pendants that can detect a fall and place a call for help.

Who needs one? Most buyers purchase a system for an aging parent who lives alone so that they can get help quickly if needed. That person might be at a heightened risk for falls because of poor eyesight or memory changes, says Barbara Resnick, Ph.D., professor of nursing at the University of Maryland and past president of the American Ger­iatrics Society. The systems can also be useful in nonemergency situations where the user doesn’t need an ambulance but does need someone to come to their aid.

The experts we consulted recommend looking for a medical alert system that meets all or most of these criteria.

  • It’s appropriate for the user. For example, a stroke survivor may need a device they can activate with one hand.
  • It offers a choice of a wristband and/or neck pendant. Cords worn around the neck can pose a strangulation risk; wristbands may irritate those with skin ailments.
  • It includes help buttons that can be wall-mounted near the floor in multiple rooms in case the user falls and isn’t wearing the pendant.
  • It offers multiple choices for whom to contact if you need help.
  •  It has a battery backup in case of a power failure.
  • The base station can be contacted from anywhere on your property.
  • The company has its own monitoring center, in the U.S., and employs its own trained emergency operators (rather than contracting that function out).
  • The monitoring center has been certified by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), a nonprofit safety and consulting company.

All systems (listed in alphabetical order, below) offer daily 24-hour monitoring services and put two operators on each call. (One contacts emergency services; the other stays on the line with you.) All come with a waterproof neck pendant and wristband with a battery backup. Tip: As you shop, ask for price quotes in writing.

Life Alert

(800-494-9394)

Monthly service cost

Landline: $30 Cellular: $40

GPS mobile (works when you are traveling away from home): $20

Features

Range: 300 feet

Offers a mobile 911 phone? Yes
(Places a call to local 911 services if you’re out of your normal service range.)

Automatic fall detection? No

Fees

Contract: 36 months (If user dies, contract is void.)

Activation:  $95

Cancellation: $90

Monitoring services

In-house or outsourced? In-house

UL-listed (or comparable)? Yes


LifeStation

(877-288-4962)

Monthly service cost

Landline: $26 Cellular: $33

GPS mobile (works when you are traveling away from home): Not available

Features

Range: 500 to 650 feet

Offers a mobile 911 phone? Yes
(Places a call to local 911 services if you’re out of your normal service range.)

Automatic fall detection? No

Fees

Contract: No fee

Activation:  No fee

Cancellation: No fee

Monitoring services

In-house or outsourced? In-house

UL-listed (or comparable)? Yes

Medical Alert

(800-800-2537)

Monthly service cost

Landline: $30 Cellular: $35

GPS mobile (works when you are traveling away from home): $40

Features

Range: 600 feet

Offers a mobile 911 phone? Yes
(Places a call to local 911 services if you’re out of your normal service range.)

Automatic fall detection? Yes (Charges an extra fee for this service. Companies say systems cannot detect 100 percent of falls.)

Fees

Contract: No fee

Activation: No fee

Cancellation: $50 to $110

Monitoring services

In-house or outsourced? Outsourced

UL-listed (or comparable)? Yes


MobileHelp

(800-992-0616)

Monthly service cost

Landline: Not available. Cellular: $35

GPS mobile (works when you are traveling away from home): $42

Features

Range: 400 to 600 feet

Offers a mobile 911 phone? No
(Places a call to local 911 services if you’re out of your normal service range.)

Automatic fall detection? Yes (Charges and extra fee for this service. Companies say systems cannot detect 100 percent of falls.)

Fees

Contract: No fee

Activation:  No fee

Cancellation: No fee

Monitoring services

In-house or outsourced? Outsourced

UL-listed (or comparable)? Yes

Philips Lifeline

(855-214-1363)

Monthly service cost

Landline: $30 Cellular: $46

GPS mobile (works when you are traveling away from home): Not available

Features

Range: 400 to 600 feet

Offers a mobile 911 phone? No
(Places a call to local 911 services if you’re out of your normal service range.)

Automatic fall detection? Yes (Charges an extra fee for this service. Companies say systems cannot detect 100 percent of falls.)

Fees

Contract: No fee

Activation:  $20 to $60

Cancellation: No fee

Monitoring services

In-house or outsourced? In-house

UL-listed (or comparable)? No


Rescue Alert

(800-688-9576)

Monthly service cost

Landline: $29 Cellular: $43

GPS mobile (works when you are traveling away from home): Not available

Features

Range: 600 feet

Offers a mobile 911 phone? Yes
(Places a call to local 911 services if you’re out of your normal service range.)

Automatic fall detection? No

Fees

Contract: No fee

Activation:  No fee

Cancellation: No fee

Monitoring services

In-house or outsourced? In-house

UL-listed (or comparable)? Yes (Certified by ETL, a standards-testing organization.)

—Sue Byrne

This article also appeared in the July 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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