Medical Alert Systems
Medical alert systems can give you a greater sense of independence and security knowing that they will alert first responders in the event of a medical emergency or accident. They include home-based, mobile and unmonitored medical alert systems, giving you flexible options.
- Written by Terry Turner
Senior Financial Writer and Financial Wellness Facilitator
Terry Turner has more than 35 years of journalism experience, including covering benefits, spending and congressional action on federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare. He is a Certified Financial Wellness Facilitator through the National Wellness Institute and the Foundation for Financial Wellness and a member of the Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education (AFCPE®).Read More
- Edited ByLamia Chowdhury
Lamia Chowdhury is a financial content editor for RetireGuide and has over three years of marketing experience in the finance industry. She has written copy for both digital and print pieces ranging from blogs, radio scripts and search ads to billboards, brochures, mailers and more.Read More
- Reviewed ByEsther Kane, C.D.S.
Esther Kane, C.D.S.
Senior Safety Expert
Esther Kane is a senior safety expert and certified Senior Home Safety Specialist. As a retired occupational therapist and certified CARES® Dementia Specialist™, Esther works as a consultant and educator for seniors and their caregivers. She is also the co-owner of Senior Safety Advice.Read More
- Published: July 5, 2022
- Updated: May 23, 2023
- 11 min read time
- This page features 4 Cited Research Articles
- Edited By
What Is a Medical Alert System?
A medical alert system provides safety for seniors through emergency monitoring both in home and on the go. If you have a medical emergency, accident or other incident requiring first responders, the system will notify emergency personnel for you.
Injuries — especially falls — can be serious for older people. They can also incapacitate you to the point where you can’t get to a phone to call for help if you are alone.
Medical alert systems can call for help by simply pressing a wearable button. Mobile units can be worn outside the house and can feature a GPS that lets emergency responders know exactly where you are.
- Home-based systems
- In-home medical alert systems typically feature a base device that stays in one spot in your home. It has a speaker and microphone that lets you connect to the system’s emergency call center through a landline or cell connection. You have a second, wearable element with an emergency button that allows you to use the stationary device within a specific range.
- Mobile systems
- Mobile medical alert systems feature a battery-powered cellular device you either wear or carry with you. It contains a GPS device that shows emergency call operators exactly where you are if you hit an emergency button.
- Unmonitored systems
- Unmonitored medical alert systems tend to be the simplest type. They have fewer features and work by pressing a button and connecting you directly to a pre-arranged emergency number such as a call center operator, a 911 operator or a family member, neighbor or caregiver.
Medical alert systems can help to save a life in the case of an emergency when you can't reach the phone. There are multiple medical alert models to choose from, allowing the user to choose the best type for their individual needs. Although Medicare does not cover medical alert devices, some private Medicare Advantage plans do.
What Features Come in Medical Alert Systems?
Different emergency alert systems offer different features and options. You should consider these and how they may benefit your needs and lifestyle when searching for a system.
- Live, round-the-clock monitoring
- Live 24/7 monitoring, 365 days a year, is the highest level of protection medical alert systems provide. This means you’ll be able to reach an emergency operator any time of day or night, any day of the year.
- Automatic fall detection
- This feature automatically notifies the emergency call center if it detects you having fallen. It uses measurements taken by your wearable device that may suggest you’ve fallen and are unconscious. An automatic fall detection option typically requires an additional monthly monitoring fee.
- Activity monitoring
- Activity monitoring notifies family members, caregivers or others if you have not shown signs of movement for long periods of time.
- Caregiver tools
- Caregiver tools allow a family member or caregiver to monitor your account through a mobile phone or an online connection. This includes alerts if you fall, sleep periods, GPS tracking, low-battery notifications and other actions that may require a caregiver’s attention.
- Environmental monitoring
- Environmental monitoring features can detect fires, carbon monoxide leaks or other environmental dangers, automatically alerting the emergency call center.
- GPS tracking
- Particularly useful if the user has memory problems and may become lost. GPS tracking can alert family members and others of your location if you become lost or disoriented.
- Lockboxes mounted near the main entrance of your home can hold a copy of your key allowing emergency responders quick access to your home without having to break your door. The exact location of the lockbox is kept in your file so the emergency operator can relay it to first responders.
- Medication reminders
- Some medical alert systems include a medication reminder feature that can alert you when it’s time to take certain medications.
- Wall buttons
- You can purchase additional wall buttons for some medical alert systems. You can place these in parts of your home prone to higher risk of accidents. You can notify the emergency call center with these buttons if you are not wearing or carrying an alert device.
- Water-resistant wearable devices
- A water-resistant wearable device allows you to take your emergency button into the bath or shower, so it is always available.
How Do You Use a Medical Alert System?
Medical alert systems use remote transmitters with call buttons to notify an emergency call center if you experience a medical emergency.
These transmitters may be placed in specific parts of your home or worn on your person.
- Wearable pendant-like devices worn around the neck
- Portable devices you carry in a purse or wear on your belt
- Wristband devices similar to a watch
- Wall-mounted transmitters in the home’s most hazardous areas — such as the bathroom, kitchen or near stairways
The best type for you depends on your medical and mobility conditions. The idea is that you are always able to get to the emergency button on the transmitter.
Once you have an emergency, using the alert system involves four common steps.
- Press your medical alert system’s emergency button.
- The medical alert system automatically notifies emergency operators.
- The emergency operator contacts you through a speaker in the system to assess your situation.
- The emergency operator notifies a neighbor, family member or emergency services depending on your situation.
The maker of the medical alert system you use provides its own emergency call centers. These are staffed 24 hours a day in the United States. They also provide translation services for non-English speakers.
The people who work in the call centers are trained to quickly access your medical information that they have on file. They can quickly determine your needs and provide the proper response — whether that’s calling a family member or neighbor to help you or calling your local emergency responders if you need immediate medical assistance.
How Much Do Medical Alert Systems Cost?
Medical alert systems require a one-time cost for the equipment, plus a monthly subscription fee.
Costs for a basic emergency medical alert system can range from less than $20 per month to more than $60. This is in addition to the cost of the equipment, which can cost more than $100. But if you shop around, you can find some companies that charge less for equipment.
Additional features can add to the monthly cost. For instance, automatic fall detection can cost up to $20 a month with some systems. But other systems may include it in the regular monthly rate.
It’s best to compare prices and monthly fees for the features you want from several different medical alert system providers.
Does Medicare Pay for Medical Alert Systems?
Original Medicare — Medicare Part A and Part B — is provided through the federal government and does not cover the costs of a medical alert system. Medigap will not cover a medical alert system either.
But some Medicare Advantage plans — sold through private insurers — may cover some or all the costs of a system.
Medicare Advantage plans are required to cover everything Medicare Part A and Part B covers, but Advantage plans are allowed to offer additional coverage.
This coverage differs from plan to plan, so you should talk with your Medicare Advantage plan provider to see if your plan covers a medical alert system. Your plan may refer to a medical alert system as a “personal emergency response system” — or PERS — so ask about that term and if it applies to your situation.
What Medical Alert Systems Are Available?
There is a wide range of choices available for people looking for a medical alert device. You should compare the features and cost from several companies before deciding which model is best for you.
These are some of the most common brands available.
Philips Lifeline is the only FDA-approved medical alert system — with the device designed by a physician. It is also the largest medical alert system service in the United States with more than 7.5 million subscribers.
There is no upfront cost for equipment — but activation fees range from $50 to $149 per device. Monthly fees in 2023 ranged from about $29.95 to $58.95.
Philips Lifeline offers a range of options, but the list varies based on the model.
Bay Alarm medical alert service starts at about $25 per month, with more expensive plans offering additional features or options.
There is no minimum contract commitment, no startup costs and no activation fee. You can cancel service at any time without a penalty.
The Bay Alarm battery has a four-day life expectancy before it must be recharged.
Life Alert is one of the longest-established medical alert systems — originating in 1987.
The Life Alert pendant uses a non-rechargeable battery with a 10-year life expectancy. So, you have less worry about the battery dying.
Service requires a three-year contract, and the system does not offer fall detection. One-time equipment fees are around $100 per device and the basic subscription fee is $49 with additional $19 fees for each additional device.
Life Alert reportedly handles more than two million calls per year, according to its website.
Lively Mobile+ (formerly GreatCall)
Lively Mobile + is a medical alert system that operates through smartphone service. The company is known for the Jitterbug line of cell phones, specifically designed for older users.
Lively does not offer in-home-only service since it routes through cellular service — but it works both in and out of the home.
The waterproof Lively medical alert device starts at $49.95 — though the company offers it for reduced prices sometimes. You’ll also have to pay for activation fees and monthly plans. Activation plans range from $24.99 to $34.99 a month. Fall detection services require an additional monthly fee of $9.99.
Battery life is up to 80 hours before recharging and it supports more than 100 languages.
Medical Guardian has more than 200,000 customers according to its website. The company features both in-home only and mobile cellular devices.
Monthly services range from $27.45 to $36.62 depending on the type of device. Fall detection can be added for an extra $10 per month and GPS tracking is available on the Medical Guardian Mini, which has a $75 equipment fee and starts at $39.95 a month.
There is no minimum contract and no activation fee.
The Medical Guardian batteries can go up to 168 hours between recharging — one of the longest time frames for rechargeable medical alert systems. The home-only version also has a range of up to 1,300 feet from the base unit.
Is a Medical Alert System Right for You?
Medical alert systems are one of the items you should consider if you decide to age in place. These systems can provide an extra level of safety as you age.
There are specific medical and age-related conditions that make a medical alert system particularly advantageous.
- You are at risk of a medical emergency — heart attack, stroke, seizures or other conditions.
- You are at risk of falling.
- You have a chronic illness that may suddenly require medical attention.
- You live alone or are alone for long periods of time each day.
- You require special medications.
- You want to give family members peace of mind.
- You want to maintain your independence — aging in place rather than moving into assisted living.
If you decide a medical alert system is right for you, be sure to consider which devices, options and features would tailor the system to your needs.
- Home-only or mobile system
- If you are homebound or don’t leave the home without a caregiver, a home-only system may be best for you. This will typically save you some money upfront and monthly. But if you spend time outside the home — especially by yourself, a mobile device with GPS tracking may be a better option, in case you have an emergency while out and about.
- Monitored or unmonitored system
- A monitored system will connect you with a 24/7 emergency call system. This will cover any emergency any time of day or night year-round. An unmonitored system will connect you with family, friends or a caregiver you designate. But this could be dangerous if you need emergency attention right away.
- Fall detection
- Falls are one of the most serious accidents that can happen to you as you age. If you are unconscious — or unable to activate your medical alert system — after a fall, you’ll be unable to use it to call for immediate help. Fall detection will determine if you are incapacitated after a fall and will automatically contact help.
Features and options can cost extra. But depending on your condition, certain features that address your particular needs may be the best reason to consider a system in the first place. Keep that in mind when considering whether a medical alert system is right for you.
"I recently became disabled due to a spondylosis in my neck. As such, I am about to qualify for Medicare benefits in a few months. Since I live alone and have no family here in the U.S., I needed to find a way to stay independent without burdening my friends. Enter this article, a good primer for medical alert services."
4 Cited Research Articles
- Gregory, N. (2021, October 7). Are Medical Alert Systems Covered by Medicare? Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/health/medicare/medical-alert-systems-medicare/
- Roberts, C. (2020, October 19). How to Choose a Medical Alert System. Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/medical-alert-systems/how-to-choose-a-medical-alert-system-a1228040748/
- Agboola, S. et al. (2017, April 18). Healthcare Utilization in Older Patients Using Personal Emergency Response Systems: An Analysis of Electronic Health Records and Medical Alert Data. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5395921/
- Orange County, North Carolina. (Medical Alert Systems). Retrieved from https://www.orangecountync.gov/DocumentCenter/View/673/Medical-Alert-Systems-PDF?bidId=
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