Best Medical Alert Systems

These systems can call for emergency help with the press of a button. CR's exclusive survey compares 7 major brands.

A close-up photo of a medical alert worn on a person's wrist.
Photo: Bay Alarm Medical

Medical alert devices, systems that allow users to summon help with the press of a button, are useful for people at risk of falling or experiencing a health emergency.

There are a number of factors to consider when choosing a device. To help consumers sort through all the available information, we surveyed 1,869 Consumer Reports members, who rated their satisfaction with seven different medical alert device brands. In addition to sharing details about their devices’ features, members rated their satisfaction on variables such as price, customer service, and response speed. 

The brands included in our ratings, each of which received at least 100 member reviews, are (in alphabetical order): Bay Alarm Medical, GreatCall Lively Mobile, Life Alert, Medical Alert, Medical Guardian, MobileHelp, and Philips Lifeline.

Across the board, all seven brands received fairly high overall satisfaction scores (between 80 and 85 out of 100). That said, there were some notable differences both in functionality and in satisfaction scores for individual features.

Here’s what to look for when choosing a medical device, and how the brands stacked up.

What Matters When Using a Medical Alert Device

Call buttons and fall detection: A vast majority of surveyed CR members said their medical alert devices had a portable call button, while 4 out of 10 featured an in-home call button. (Some systems included both.)

Over a third (36 percent) of the devices came with fall detection, which uses sensors to register falls in order to automatically contact a dispatch center. Fall detection usually comes with an additional monthly fee. CR members who had Philips Lifeline, MobileHelp, and Medical Guardian were the most likely to say their device includes this feature.
 

more on Senior Health

Monitored vs. unmonitored: The seven reviewed brands all offer monitored systems, meaning the device’s call button connects to a live person, 24/7. (Ninety-four percent of members said their devices were monitored.) Unmonitored systems can be programmed to dial an emergency contact.

While there's an advantage to having a monitored system—you’re guaranteed to connect with a trained professional, no matter when an emergency occurs—it typically comes with a monthly fee.

Cell vs. landline service: In the past, medical alert devices were designed to work over landlines, which meant they were largely confined to the home. Today, many systems operate on cellular networks, allowing users to summon help from anywhere. 

Not everyone surveyed knew how their system sent calls. But a higher percentage of people had devices that used cell service rather than a landline (54 percent vs. 32 percent; 14 percent don’t know).

Basic service vs. additional service fees: Eighty-six percent of CR members who rated one of the seven brands said they paid some kind of monthly fee, which isn’t surprising given that a majority had monitored systems. Those with Bay Alarm Medical devices were the most likely to pay fees (98 percent), while those with Medical Alert devices were the least likely (75 percent). 

Many people weren't sure if they had a fee or may have been unsure about what their fee covered. Nearly a third weren't sure if they paid a fee for additional services. When selecting a device, it’s a good idea to determine the monthly cost and ask for a rundown of what it covers. 

Unintentional activation: About 8 out of 10 of those surveyed had activated their medical device, with accidental activations being more common than intentional ones. A third of device owners had activated their devices intentionally and unintentionally. 

Some brands were more likely to be inadvertently triggered than others. Leading the pack was MobileHelp, where accidental activations were 66 percent more common than intentional ones. The least prone to accidental activation was Medical Guardian, the only brand where intentional activations were more common than the unintentional kind. For those who had devices with fall detection, about a third said the system had at some point registered that they’d fallen when they hadn’t. 

Across all brands, users overwhelmingly reported they weren’t charged for any of these erroneous activations. 

Malfunction rates: A large majority of users reported that their devices never malfunctioned, a category that included not working when activated, failing to detect a fall, or running out of battery life. While this was true across all brands, there was a clear outlier: Twenty-seven percent of those with GreatCall Lively Mobile devices reported a device malfunction. For the other six brands, that figure was much lower, ranging from 10 percent to 12 percent.

CR members can read on for the details of our exclusive member survey.

How the Brands Compare

All seven brands in CR's member survey received a fairly high overall satisfaction score, from 80 to 85 out of 100. (An overall satisfaction score of 100 would mean all users were completely satisfied, while a score of 80 would indicate they were very satisfied.)

Price, including fees, was the strongest predictor of overall satisfaction. “Even among those who appear to have used the devices in a real emergency, how much the help costs predicted satisfaction more strongly than how quickly it arrived,” says Tess Yanisch, a survey research associate at CR. (For more on pricing, read "How to Choose a Medical Alert System.")

The most meaningful differences in satisfaction were found between the top-scoring brand and the bottom-scoring two brands. Here's how they all stacked up:

Bay Alarm Medical
The leader in overall satisfaction, it received a Very Good rating on price when fees were included (most brands earned a Good on this metric). While Bay Alarm Medical was the least commonly owned brand, it was one of the brands most likely to have been purchased in the past two years.
Overall satisfaction rating: 85

MobileHelp
It received a Good rating for initial price and for price when fees were included. Seventy-three percent of the CR members in our sample who have MobileHelp devices said their device had fall detection, more than for any other brand. But it was also the brand most prone to accidental activations.
Overall satisfaction rating: 84

Philips Lifeline
More than half (54 percent) of CR members who owned a Philips Lifeline device said it has a fall detection feature. Philips Lifeline also got higher than average marks for initial price satisfaction.
Overall satisfaction rating: 83

GreatCall Lively Mobile
This was the only brand to receive an Excellent rating in response speed, compared with a Very Good for other brands. Most Consumer Reports members who have this brand said it sent calls for help through cell service and worked everywhere they went. On the flipside, it was the most likely to malfunction.
Overall satisfaction score: 82

Medical Guardian
Forty-two percent of Consumer Reports members who own a Medical Guardian device said that it had a fall detection feature.  In addition, Medical Guardian was the least prone to accidental activations.
Overall satisfaction score: 81

Medical Alert
It scored slightly lower on measures of professionalism and customer service at purchase than the other brands did (Very Good vs. Excellent, and Good vs. Very Good).
Overall satisfaction score: 80

Life Alert
This was the only brand to receive a Fair rating on price when fees were included, the strongest indicator of overall satisfaction. Its rating on customer service since purchase was also slightly lower than average.
Overall satisfaction score: 80