older person pressing help button on medical alert deviceShare on Pinterest
BSIP/Getty Images

If you’re an older person or have a loved one who is, you may be concerned about a medical emergency happening when you or your loved one is alone.

You may wonder how medical alert systems — those buttons you’ve seen people wear on pendants, necklaces, and bracelets — work.

You’ve come to the right place. Below, we explain what medical alert systems are, how they work, their cost, and what features to look for.

A medical alert system, also called a personal emergency response system (PERS), is a wearable mobile device or an in-home console with a button you press to get emergency medical help.

It connects you to a call center with trained operators who assess your situation and either dispatch local emergency services or notify your chosen emergency contacts.

Older adults use medical alert systems the most. People who live with chronic medical conditions or disabilities also use them.

There are also more specialized systems available, like devices for epilepsy and medication reminders, that provide more specific features than medical alert systems.

Pros

  • Help around the clock: A medical alert device can get you emergency help 24/7 via a live operator at a call center within seconds of your call.
  • Language support: Most systems support upward of 100 languages.
  • Location tracking: Mobile devices transmit your current location automatically via GPS. In-home units transmit your registered address.
  • Wide range of options and features: Medical alert systems can offer features like automatic fall protection, activity tracking, caregiver reports, medication reminders, and even patient monitoring and telehealth services.
  • Mobility: Mobile medical alert devices go where you go. They are often waterproof. You can wear them in the shower, bath, and even outside on a rainy day. They work wherever there is cell coverage.
  • Ease of mind: Both you and your loved ones can rest easy knowing you have an emergency safety net.

Cons

  • User-dependent: You have to be able and willing to use the device. If it’s a mobile unit, you have to keep it charged and always wear or carry it.
  • Limited range: Home-based systems have a limited range from the base unit to your wearable button. Beyond that, it won’t work. Mobile units only work where there is cell coverage.
  • Cost: Subscriptions usually cost between $30 and $90 per month, sometimes with additional charges for activation, equipment purchases, optional features, and repairs.
  • False alarms: If you mistakenly press the alert button, it will cause a false alarm. (You can just cancel the call or tell the responding operator it’s a mistake.)

You can purchase a medical alert system:

  • in a store
  • on the phone
  • on the company’s website
  • from an online marketplace, like Amazon

It’s usually best to start at the company’s website or call the company and get help customizing a system for your exact needs, if available.

Medical alert systems have many features, but they all operate basically the same way:

1. Press the help button

A single press of the help button sends a call to a response center, whether you’re using an in-home console or a mobile device like a:

  • pendant
  • wristband
  • pocket unit

2. An operator answers and establishes 2-way communication with you

If the operator cannot establish communication or if you do not respond, they will dispatch local emergency services to your location.

3. The operator talks with you and assesses your needs

Operators are trained to analyze and respond to all kinds of emergencies. They stay on the line with you until help arrives.

4. The operator dispatches emergency help, based on what you need

You and the operator decide what help you need. It may be someone on your emergency contact list or local emergency services.

The most frequent users of medical alerts are older people who want to maintain independent living.

Falls are the leading cause of injury among adults over the age of 65. Medical alert systems bring you immediate help, but you have to be willing to wear the device and use it.

One 2017 study indicated that older adults may be reluctant to use one, though. Even though some study participants wore the medical alert, they did not use it for various reasons. For example:

  • they forgot
  • they didn’t want an ambulance
  • they wanted to handle the situation by themselves

However, researchers did conclude that medical alerts enable older adults to remain active and independent, largely by making both them and their families confident about their safety.

Medical alert devices can be helpful if you:

  • are at risk of falls or other incapacitating events, like fainting or confusion
  • live alone and need an emergency contact
  • live away from family or friends
  • want to be able to get emergency help wherever you go
  • want reassurance that you’ll have quick emergency help

Caregivers for older people and people with epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease also find the devices reassuring. Learn more in our articles:

Not everyone can adapt to using a medical alert device. It may not be the right choice if you:

  • need more supervision or care than a medical alert can give
  • are unable or unwilling to use the device reliably
  • don’t have adequate cellular coverage where you live (although you can use a landline connection for some units)

Keep in mind

Medical alert devices are not a substitute for emergency services.

In the event of a mental health emergency — such as if you’re thinking about harming yourself or someone else — call 911 or the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.

It can be challenging to sort through the many medical alert systems and features. We’ve made the choice easier by picking the best medical alert systems of 2023.

As you begin looking for a medical alert system, here are some of the top aspects to consider:

Company reputation

Check out reviews from organizations like AARP or the Better Business Bureau to learn the reputation of the company you’re considering.

Customer reviews

Read what customers think of varied systems by combing through:

  • Yelp reviews
  • Google and Amazon ratings and reviews
  • family or friends who might be using the system

Money-back guarantee

Check what kind of money-back guarantee the company has regarding:

  • returns
  • refunds
  • cancellations

Warranty

Does the company offer a warranty for breakage, theft, or repairs of its leased equipment?

Contract

Does the company require you to sign a contract, especially a long-term one? Most don’t. You can easily find one that will let you subscribe month to month.

Features to look for

Here are some of the top features to consider when choosing a medical alert system:

  • Response time: This is the time between the instant you press the emergency button and when the emergency operator answers. The average is 30 seconds, but it’s often as little as 10 to 15 seconds.
  • Mobile device or in-home unit: Most systems offer both stationary in-home units and mobile units you wear or carry with you wherever you go.
  • In-home range: Be sure to check the range of an in-home unit from the base unit to the button you’ll wear. Ideally, the range should cover your whole home.
  • Connection type: Most mobile units operate on cell coverage provided by the medical alert company, so you don’t have to have your own cell account. But be sure your area has coverage by the cell service that the company uses.

Bonus features

  • Automatic fall detection: This is probably the most sought-after feature and often involves a separate device. It automatically notifies the emergency call center when it detects a fall.
  • Location detection: Most mobile devices use GPS tracking to identify your location and convey it to the emergency call center.
  • Activity tracking: Sensors built into some at-home systems enable caregivers to monitor a user’s movements via a mobile app.
  • App: Many systems offer a linked app for account management and access to a variety of add-on features.

You can buy a medical alert device:

  • in a store
  • on the phone
  • on the company’s website
  • from online marketplaces, like Amazon

The best place to start shopping is on a company’s website. It’s also a good idea to call the company and ask a customer representative for recommendations for your particular situation.

Tip: Medical alert companies often have deals and promotions — ask about them.

Monthly subscriptions usually range from $30 to $90, sometimes with add-on costs for:

  • activation
  • equipment purchases
  • optional features

Do medical alert devices offer payment plans?

The only payment plans usually offered are discounted semiannual or annual payments instead of monthly.

Is there a setup fee?

Sometimes there’s an activation fee, but you can probably find a company that doesn’t have one. You can ask the company about all fees.

Do medical alert devices accept insurance? What about Medicare?

Medical alert companies generally do not accept insurance and suggest you check with your health insurance provider.

Medicare parts A and B do not cover medical alerts, but supplementary Medicare Advantage plans (Part C) may.

Flexible spending accounts (FSA) or health savings accounts (HSA) through an employer may consider medical alert devices eligible for financing, so you might want to check with your provider.

Can you change or cancel your medical alert device subscription?

Yes, you can usually change or cancel your plan at any time. But be sure to check the company’s specific policy.

What’s the difference between medical alert systems vs. medical ID bracelets?

Medical ID bracelets supply your ID information, healthcare details, and emergency contacts. They are a static resource.

Medical alert systems are interactive devices used to call for help during a medical emergency.

They can work well together, but only the medical alert system will summon help.

What’s the difference between monitored vs. unmonitored medical alert systems?

Monitored systems put you through to an emergency response center where a live operator answers and dispatches appropriate help when you press the help button.

Unmonitored systems dial 911 or your emergency contacts directly instead of dialing a response center first.

Can I accidentally set it off?

Yes, you can accidentally press the help button. Some systems have a cancel button, or you can let the responding operator know it was an error.

Are medical alert devices private and secure?

Yes, companies usually make considerable effort to safeguard your personal information.

How do I turn it off?

You generally want to keep your system on at all times. But if you do want to turn it off, you can usually toggle a switch or remove batteries from mobile units.

Medical alert systems can save lives and allow older people and others with mobility or medical concerns to live independently longer. They also help reassure users and their caregivers, family members, and friends that emergency help is there when it’s needed.

Medical alert systems all work similarly and simply, but you’ll want to check:

  • features
  • costs
  • add-on options to ensure the system you get covers your specific needs

If you’re interested in trying medical alert devices, you can get started with our list of reviews and comparisons: