How to Handle Accidental Activations and Other Issues With Medical Alert Devices

Expert tips for troubleshooting common hiccups with these potentially lifesaving devices

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Medical alert devices can provide valuable peace of mind for those at risk of experiencing a health emergency or a fall, as well as for their loved ones.

Typically worn as a pendant, on the wrist, or installed in the home, monitored medical alert systems allow users to connect to a call center with the touch of the button. From there, trained dispatchers can determine the appropriate response based on the severity of the situation.

But seniors and caregivers new to these devices should be aware of potential issues, including accidental activations.

In a survey of 1,869 Consumer Reports members, 62 percent of respondents said they had accidentally activated their medical alert device, while 14 percent said their device had, at some point, malfunctioned.

Below, experts share strategies for troubleshooting before a system is installed, as well as how to respond to (and avoid) accidental activations and other common issues.

Troubleshooting in Advance

When activated (generally via a call button), monitored medical alert devices will connect to a call center. If staffers at the call center are not able to reach the user, they will generally try to contact a list of family members and caregivers (depending on how the device is configured at setup) before dispatching emergency responders.

More on Medical Alert Systems

This is one reason it is important to set up the system in a way that makes users—and caregivers—feel comfortable and in control. Before setting up a device for a loved one, for example, make a list of people who can serve as emergency contacts, such as family members or neighbors.

A frequent concern seniors have is that an accidental activation will lead to the fire department breaking down their door, says Laurie Orlov, the founder of Aging and Health Technology Watch, which conducts market research. “Setting up your device properly can mitigate that fear.”

Activations, even accidental ones (more on that below), can be scary. For caregivers, it’s important to remember that activations are often for nonemergency events. To navigate the myriad reasons behind nonemergency activations, many devices can be configured in advance to automatically email or text a summary of any exchange to listed caregivers so that they can follow up if needed, even if no emergency occurred.

To learn more about proper setup, keep in mind that most manufacturers provide phone support as part of the subscription or purchase, which covers installation questions as well as general best practices.

Managing an Accidental Activation

Accidental activations are quite common. According to CR’s survey results, they are actually more common than intentional activations.

Rob Flippo, the CEO of MobileHelp, a medical alert systems manufacturer, says his company hears from users all the time whose pets have set off an in-home device by stepping on the button.

Systems with fall detection often erroneously register falls. “If you make it too sensitive, it thinks you are falling all the time,” he says. “If it’s not sensitive enough, it won’t detect a fall. You have to balance the two of those.”

In the case of either event, most devices have a cancel button, Orlov says. Be sure you know (or your loved one knows) where that button is and how to use it.

When a call isn’t canceled right away, monitored devices will connect to a call center. If the user is fine, they can simply tell the dispatcher that it was an accidental activation, which ends the interaction. In a situation where they can’t be reached but have a list of programmed emergency contacts, the call center will go down the list. If no one is reachable, emergency responders will be dispatched.

With nonmonitored devices, there are fewer exit ramps. If the user doesn’t immediately cancel the activation, the device will go through a preconfigured list of contacts. If no one answers, the device will contact 911.

The seven brands in CR’s medical alert ratings all offer monitored systems.

Using a Medical Alert Device Consistently

Thomas Caprio, MD, a professor of medicine and geriatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, says that in his personal experience with patients, the most common issue is users who forget or refuse to wear their devices. This can stem from a resistance to the device itself, or simple forgetfulness.

“Often, a medical alert [device] has been recommended by a doctor or family member,” Orlov says. The suggestion often follows physical symptoms or health changes, such as a hip replacement, a history of falls, or previous symptoms of a heart attack or stroke.

When speaking with patients and caregivers, Caprio stresses these systems’ ability to help users maintain their independence for longer. “I try to frame it in that sense,” he says.

“If you are going to commit to this—you’re paying the money for it—this needs to be part of your person all the time,” Caprio says.

Avoiding Other Issues

Another frequent issue is the misconception that the devices can’t get wet. While most aren’t submersible, they’re water-resistant, which means they can be worn in the shower. (Check the details of any specific device to be sure.)

Charging can also create potential problems. Users need to remember not only to charge their devices but also to put them back on after each charging session. Many devices come with visual and audible cues that the battery level is getting low. MobileHelp’s devices, for example, start flashing. They can also be set up so that caregivers are automatically contacted when a device is nearing the end of its charge.

Finally, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of regularly testing the device to make sure everything is working properly. Flippo recommends that users do so once a month to confirm that the device isn’t damaged and that there aren’t any network issues.

Head shot of Laura Entis, a freelance writer for Health CIA

Laura Entis

Laura Entis is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist focusing on health, business, and science. In addition to Consumer Reports, her work has appeared in Fortune, The Guardian, Outside, and GQ, among other publications.