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Questions to ask a medical alert company

What to know before buying a system or device

Profile picture of Kathryn Parkman
by Kathryn Parkman ConsumerAffairs Research Team

With a medical alert device, it’s easier to call for help when you need it most, like after a fall or emergency crisis. Asking these questions will help you find a medical alert company that offers the services you need.

How is the medical alert device worn?
Some medical alert devices are small and slim, while others are bigger and bulkier. How you wear a device varies based on the type you choose. Wearable devices come as bracelets or pendants or can attach to your clothing.
How is the device monitored?
Medical alert devices come monitored or unmonitored. A monitored device alerts an agent during an emergency, like if you have a heart attack or stroke, or in other situations when you might need help, including being locked out of your home or getting lost. Once the call center is alerted, agents can provide assistance or contact emergency personnel who can help.

How the call center is alerted depends on the device and system. Some monitored medical alert devices can sense when a patient falls or if their vitals change, which would cause an alert. Other monitored devices require the user to push a button to alert the call center. Monitored medical alert devices provide around-the-clock assistance and have agents available 24/7.

Unmonitored medical alert devices often don’t have access to a call center — instead, you program the numbers of friends, family members, neighbors and caregivers into the device. If you need assistance, you have to push a button to call the preprogrammed numbers. Some unmonitored medical alert devices may contact a call center if the numbers you’ve added go unanswered, but you might have to pay an additional fee when this happens.

What is the range?
Your medical alert device's range will vary based on whether it uses Wi-Fi, a landline or a cellular connection. It also depends on the device and the monitoring company.

Landline medical alert systems provide a smaller effective range. The devices only work when they’re within a specific distance from the base unit, which is connected to a landline. The distance you can move from the base unit varies depending on the equipment — the average range for a landline medical alert system is between 600 and 1,000 feet.

Mobile medical alert systems provide versatility — if the device can connect to a mobile or cellular network, it can access the monitoring call center. The wider range of a cellular medical alert system helps monitor individuals both at home and while away.

What is the battery life?
The battery life of your medical alert device will vary based on the make and model of the equipment you use. Some medical alert system devices have nonrechargeable, nonreplaceable batteries. These devices come with one battery that doesn’t need to be recharged. Unfortunately, with these medical alert devices, when the battery does run out of charge, you often have to replace the entire device instead of just the battery.

Rechargeable batteries are also commonly used in medical alert devices. These batteries require regular charging in order to operate properly. Devices with these batteries often only need to be charged every 48 to 72 hours. A rechargeable battery can be replaceable or nonreplaceable, depending upon the device.

Does the system come with fall detection?
Some medical alert devices come with a fall detection feature. These devices use a built-in sensor to detect any sudden movements that are consistent with a fall. If the device believes a fall may have occurred, it alerts the monitoring call center. Upon alert, the call center may attempt to contact you to see if you’re in need of assistance, contact a preprogrammed third party or call emergency services.

Fall detection is helpful for individuals at risk of falls that could leave them unconscious. The fall detection feature automatically alerts the call center, which can then send necessary help.

Is the medical alert system cellular- or landline-based?
Medical alert systems operate either by cellular networks or landlines. How the system operates determines where coverage is available.

Landline medical alert systems use lines provided by phone companies to communicate with the call center. These systems can only operate within a specific distance from the landline. Landline medical alert systems are ideal for individuals who only need monitoring at home or in another specific spot.

Cellular networks use towers from some of the leading cell phone companies to communicate with call centers, which provides an extensive monitoring range. If the device can access a cell signal, then you can connect to help if you need it.

Is a contract required?
A contract will clearly outline how much you pay for services, equipment rental and any other services. It will also detail the length of time it’ll take the company to provide services. Cancellation fees are also outlined in the contract.

Most medical alert companies require the subscriber to sign a contract for services. The details and length of the contract vary by company, the device used and the type of services you choose.

How much does it cost?
Multiple factors influence the cost of a medical alert system. You should consider equipment cost, monthly service rates, installation fees, shipping fees and the security deposit (if applicable) when thinking about the overall cost of a medical alert system.

Costs for medical alert systems vary not only by company but also by device and service plan. When considering the cost of a medical alert system, ask how much is required upfront and how much you’ll be charged monthly or annually. This lets you know how much you need to spend to get started and how much the system will cost you only on a monthly or yearly basis.

For more, read about the costs of aging in place or explore more topics related to elder care planning.

Are any check-in services available?
Some medical alert companies offer daily wellness checks. With this service, an agent from the monitoring call center makes daily contact with you or your loved one. This daily contact lets the call center verify the health and well-being of the individual and make sure they don't need assistance.

The method of communication used for the daily wellness check varies by company and personal preference. Some companies send an electronic notification, such as a text message or email, while others make phone calls.

What happens in the event of a power outage?
Landline medical alert systems need to be able to connect to the base unit to provide monitoring services. During a power outage, the base unit loses its connection to electricity and may not operate properly.

To prevent you from losing access to monitoring services, many landline medical alert systems have a built-in battery that automatically starts working when the power goes out. This provides coverage even when there’s no electricity.

Another outage-related issue to consider is the phone company’s landline. If the landline goes down and the base device doesn’t have a backup option, such as connecting to a cellular/mobile network, you’ll be without coverage until the landline is restored.

Can the medical alert device be worn in the shower or bath?
Only water-resistant medical alert devices can be worn in the bath or shower. Be sure to ask the company if the device you're considering is water-resistant if that's an essential feature for you.
Is there a feature to help locate a loved one?
Some medical alert companies offer features to help locate a loved one, usually through an app. This feature uses GPS to show the location of the medical device if the individual using it is lost or unresponsive. The GPS coordinates can be sent to loved ones, caregivers or emergency services to help find the individual.

Not all medical alert devices have GPS options, so make sure the equipment you use has a GPS system if it's an important feature to you.

Does the monitoring call center need a list of my medications?
Companies that provide monitored medical alert services prefer to have a list of your current medications. This is often valuable information for emergency response personnel.

Providing this information isn’t usually required. However, you can make sure you receive appropriate care in an emergency by doing so.

Bottom line

One out of every five falls causes serious injuries such as broken bones or loss of consciousness, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. A medical alert system may not be able to prevent you from falling, but it will help you quickly access medical and emergency services or alert friends, family and caregivers.

For more, read our guide on how to find the best medical alert system for yourself or a loved one.

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Profile picture of Kathryn Parkman
by Kathryn Parkman ConsumerAffairs Research Team

As a member of the ConsumerAffairs Research Team, Kathryn Parkman believes everyone deserves easy access to accurate and comprehensive information on products and businesses before they make a purchase, which is why she spends hours researching companies and industries for ConsumerAffairs. She believes conscious consumption is everyone's responsibility and that all content deserves integrity.