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What to look for in a medical alert system

They offer peace of mind—for a price

Last updated: July 2014

Photo: Courtesy of Rescue Alert

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.

Advances in technology

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 call center will alert a preselected relative or friend who can come over and assist.

What the best medical alert systems have

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

  • It works for a user's specific disability. For example, a stroke survivor may need a device he or she 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, from emergency services to a friend or relative who lives nearby.
  •  It has a battery backup in case of a power failure.
  • The base station can be contacted from anywhere on your property—even in your yard or at your mailbox.
  • 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.

Choose the right medical alert system

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. Some offer a GPS mobile feature, which works when you are traveling away from home. Some also offer a mobile 911 phone, which places a call to local 911 services if you're out of your normal service range. It carries an additional fee. Some offer an automatic fall detection system, but they say it cannot detect 100 percent of falls, and the companies charge an extra fee for this service. Tip: As you shop, ask for quotes in writing because prices and services may change.

Check our comparison chart below. Mobile user: Click on the link below to view the chart on the full site or scroll down for the details.

 

Medical alert systems comparison

Facts to consider Life Alert LifeStation Medical Alert MobileHelp Philips Lifeline Rescue Alert
Monthly service cost            

Landline/

Cellular

$30/

$40

$26/

$33

$30/

$35

NA/

$35

$30/

$42

$29/

$43

GPS mobile1 $20 NA $40 $42 NA NA
Features            
Range (in feet) 300 500   600

350 to

600

400 to

600

600
Mobile 911 phone2 Yes Yes Yes No No Yes
Automatic fall detection3 No No Yes Yes Yes No
Fees            
Minimum obligation 36 months4 30 days
90 days
None None None
Activation $95 None None None $20 to $60 None
Cancellation $90 None None
None None $0 to $255
Monitoring services            
In-house or outsourced In-house

In-

house

Outsourced Outsourced

In-

house

In-

house

UL-listed (or comparable) Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes6

1. Works when you are traveling away from home.

2. Places a call to local 911 services if you’re out of your normal service range. Carries an additional fee. 

3. Charges extra fee for this service. Companies say systems cannot detect 100 percent of falls.

4. If user dies, contract is void. 

5. Depends on payment plan.

6. Certified by ETL, a standards-testing organization.

Life Alert wristband

Life Alert

(800-494-9394)

Monthly service cost

Landline: $30 Cellular: $40 GPS mobile: $20

Features

Range: 300 feet

Offers a mobile 911 phone? Yes

Automatic fall detection? No

Fees

Minimum obligation: 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 pendant
Photo: Courtesy of LifeStation

LifeStation

(877-288-4962)

Monthly service cost

Landline: $26 Cellular: $33 GPS mobile: Not available

Features

Range: 500 feet

Offers a mobile 911 phone? Yes

Automatic fall detection? No

Fees

Minimum obligation: 30 days

Activation:  No fee

Cancellation: No fee

Monitoring services

In-house or outsourced? In-house

UL-listed (or comparable)? Yes

Medical Alert wristband and pendant
Photo: Courtesy of Medical Alert

Medical Alert

(800-800-2537)

Monthly service cost

Landline: $30 Cellular: $35 GPS mobile: $40

Features

Range: 600 feet

Offers a mobile 911 phone? Yes

Automatic fall detection? Yes

Fees

Minimum obligation: 90 days

Activation: No fee

Cancellation: No fee

Monitoring services

In-house or outsourced? Outsourced

UL-listed (or comparable)? Yes

MobileHelp medical alert system
Photo: Courtesy of MobileHelp

MobileHelp

(800-992-0616)

Monthly service cost

Landline: Not available. Cellular: $35 GPS mobile: $42

Features

Range: 350 to 600 feet

Offers a mobile 911 phone? No

Automatic fall detection? Yes  

Fees

Minimum obligation: None

Activation:  No fee

Cancellation: No fee

Monitoring services

In-house or outsourced? Outsourced

UL-listed (or comparable)? Yes

Philips Lifeline medical alert system

Philips Lifeline

(855-214-1363)

Monthly service cost

Landline: $30 Cellular: $42  GPS mobile: Not available

Features

Range: 400 to 600 feet

Offers a mobile 911 phone? No

Automatic fall detection? Yes

Fees

Minimum obligation: None

Activation:  $20 to $60

Cancellation: No fee

Monitoring services

In-house or outsourced? In-house

UL-listed (or comparable)? No

Rescue Alert pendant

Rescue Alert

(800-688-9576)

Monthly service cost

Landline: $30 Cellular: $43 GPS mobile: Not available

Features

Range: 600 feet

Offers a mobile 911 phone? Yes

Automatic fall detection? No

Fees

Minimum obligation: None

Activation:  No fee

Cancellation: $0 to $25 (Depends on payment plan.)
 

Monitoring services

In-house or outsourced? In-house

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

—Sue Byrne

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the July 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health. It was updated to reflect manufacturers' price changes.

   

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