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Medical alert systems and medical alert devices are designed to offer adults access to medical services in the case of an emergency, should they be by themselves or unable to reach a phone to call for help. In the event of a medical emergency, such electronic devices may even become lifesaving measures.

Medical alert devices can also be beneficial in the case of a fall, which is a fairly common and potentially dangerous event that affects at least 1 in 4 adults over the age of 65. These devices can also be useful in other emergency situations that involve medical conditions, such as a heart attack or stroke.

If you’re interested in this type of system for yourself or a loved one, it’s understandable to be overwhelmed by the numerous options and features available across so many different medical alert devices. To help narrow your search, we’ve taken a deeper look at what features are most commonly available, which ones you should prioritize, and which ones may or may not be worth the additional cost. Read on to learn more about which features you need to know about when comparing various brands and models.

At their most basic, medical alert devices are electronic-based systems that help connect you with someone in case of an emergency. Depending on the brand, as well as your preferences, this may be a customer representative who will connect you with a healthcare professional or emergency 911 services.

Such devices may provide peace of mind for older adults and their families, particularly if you have a loved one who may be living alone. A medical alert device can help in the case of falls, as well as other medical emergencies.

Most medical alert devices come in the form of a sensor you wear at all times, including while bathing. Depending on the brand, the sensor may automatically detect a fall, or you may need to push a panic button on the device to access assistance.

However, while medical alert systems can potentially be lifesaving, it’s important to treat them as assistive devices. They should not replace regular check ins with a loved one or regular checkups with a doctor.

How they work

A medical alert system works with the use of a personal device that you wear or have within your home. The device has a push-button that you press in case of a medical emergency. From there, you are connected with a customer care representative or an emergency operator.

To get started, you will likely need to purchase the system, as well as pay a monthly fee to have access to the emergency services. However, some companies offer the system for free with a monthly subscription or annual contract.

You will likely also need access to Wi-Fi or have Bluetooth capabilities that can pair with your smart devices. You’ll also need batteries when wearing a portable device, which may be rechargeable depending on the brand and model.


  • can be helpful in the case of falls and other medical emergencies
  • 24/7 access to help
  • may be able to detect falls automatically, based on make and model
  • many types are mobile, which can be worn in and out of your home
  • may offer peace of mind for older adults as well as their loved ones
  • can help you maintain independence with age
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  • are not a replacement for other fall prevention measures
  • may interfere with pacemakers and other medical devices
  • not all devices detect all types of falls, according to a 2020 review
  • may not be useful for all types of emergencies, such as those that involve loss of consciousness
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When shopping for a medical alert device, you’ll want to focus on the desired features you’re looking for, as well as the overall costs involved. Some devices may be more basic at a lower price, while others offer several extra features that come at an additional cost.

Below are some of the key features you’ll likely see in most brands of medical alert devices:

Home system

A basic medical alert system should come with a communicator device that you plug into a landline phone outlet. Here, you can push the button in case of help and speak directly to another person through the device. You can set this up in your bedroom on a nightstand, in your living room, or in another area of your home that you frequent.

Some brands also offer home systems that don’t need a landline. Instead, these portable systems can be linked to a cellular phone and work in the same way.

Charging station

A home medical alert system may also serve a dual purpose as a charging station for any portable devices you might wear. These may be plugged into the system when not in use.

Keep in mind that this may vary by brand. While some portable devices have rechargeable batteries, others might have removable batteries that need to be replaced.

Push-button with alarm link

Both the home unit and any linked portable devices come with push buttons. You can think of these as alarms that are activated when you press them for help, with services available 24/7.

The personnel you are connected with will vary based on the brand, as well as your membership plan. In most cases, you will be connected to a customer service representative who can then call the appropriate medical personnel.

However, some plans also offer the option of connecting directly with 911, automatically bypassing the customer call center. Your preference ultimately depends on your medical history and needs.

Wearable devices

Home and portable medical alert systems all come with a wearable device, such as a watch-style wristband, bracelet, or necklace. This will give the user the ability to push the alert button no matter where they are, either inside or outside of the house.

Additionally, these wearable devices should be waterproof so it can be worn while swimming or bathing. A waterproof feature is especially important in case of slip-and-fall injuries in a shower or bathtub.

In addition to basic features, some brands and models might offer extra features that you may consider based on your needs and budget. Here are some of these extra features you might come across:

Automatic fall detection

While most basic medical alert devices come with buttons you have to manually push in case of an emergency, some models are equipped with automatic fall detection capabilities. One 2020 study found that such features were especially helpful for older adults living alone.

Automatic fall detection works with a combination of accelerometer measurements on wearable devices, as well as barometric sensors. In the case of a fall, the company may try to reach out to you first. If they’re unsuccessful, a representative may call 911 on your behalf.

The downside to consider with automatic fall detection is the potential of a false alarm. When shopping for this feature, you may consider devices that have low false alarm rates. It’s important to note that such devices cannot always detect each fall. While many fall detection devices have a high success rate, they aren’t always 100% accurate and shouldn’t be considered infallible.

GPS locator

You might also consider a GPS locator in cases where you may not be able to communicate with a customer representative or emergency dispatcher. This may be an option in a portable device that’s also equipped with automatic fall detection.

If you have a medical emergency, the GPS in your device can send coordinates to either customer care or 911 so that paramedics may be able to find you as quickly as possible.

Smartwatch capabilities

If you’re relatively active outside on your own, you might even consider a dual-purpose medical alert device smartwatch because they have the same basic help functions as a wearable medical device.

Additionally, smartwatch versions may come with a step counter, heart rate monitor, clock, and more. Features like this will vary by brand and will likely come at a higher cost than a traditional medical device.

Automatic alerts for loved ones

Another advanced feature that can be included is an automatic alerting system for family or friends. If you wish, you may set up your device so that it sends a text message or email to designated loved ones in certain situations, such as a possible fall or a front door opening.

While not a necessary add-on for everyone, these automatic alerts can be useful when combined with GPS and other safety data, especially if you’re caring for an older adult with dementia or other chronic condition.

When shopping for a medical alert device, it’s important to weigh the benefits of the features against the cost. For example, while a portable device with GPS may provide peace of mind, it may not make sense for your situation if you don’t leave your home unaccompanied.

Additionally, while some advanced features — like a smartwatch — can help you track other data like daily steps and heart rate, these aren’t necessary for everyone. If you exercise outdoors regularly, however, then this may be worth the extra cost.

You’ll also want to compare the initial costs of the system, as well as the monthly fees. Keep in mind that most medical alert systems require that you pay the initial costs of the equipment, along with a monthly fee for monitoring access. Some companies may also charge a one-time activation fee.

Another consideration is the return policy. While some companies offer a full money-back guarantee within a certain timeframe, others may only provide a partial refund.

Medical alert systems are generally safe for most users. However, if you have either a pacemaker or an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), medical alert devices could potentially interfere with them.

As a rule of thumb, talk with a doctor as well as the manufacturer to see whether a particular medical alert system brand may be safe if you have an ICD or pacemaker.

Medical alert devices aren’t usually covered by insurance, including Medicare. If you’re wondering whether your plan may reimburse you for some or all of the costs, it may be worth talking with your insurance provider before signing up for a medical alert system.

One exception may be Medicaid programs, which sometimes cover personal emergency response services (PERS). Depending on your state, such coverage may extend to medical alert devices. You can contact Medicaid for more information about coverage and eligibility.

FSA and HSA eligibility

Even if private medical insurance doesn’t cover medical alert systems, you may still have options via a flexible spending account (FSA) or a personal health savings account (HSA). This would work by using money directly from the applicable account toward the cost(s) of the device.

While both are savings accounts designed to help cover out-of-pocket medical expenses, an FSA is only available if you have a private health plan with an employer. An HSA, on the other hand, may be available to you if you have a high-deductible insurance plan that you pay for on your own.

A medical alert device might be considered for someone typically over the age of 65 who has an underlying medical condition, or if they spend a significant amount of time alone. It may also be a good option if you are considered at a higher risk for falls.

A medical alert device might not be necessary for younger adults, as well as older adults who do not spend time by themselves. You might also need to avoid medical alert systems if you have a pacemaker or ICD.

What features should I look for in a medical alert system?

When considering a medical alert system, it’s important to choose a device offering features that will benefit your individual needs. At minimum, the device should be comfortable to wear and have an emergency button that is easy to operate when needed.

Also, if you are home alone for extended periods of time, a home-only system might be most beneficial. However, if you travel a lot or if you frequently run errands on your own, then having a portable device — or even a smartwatch version — could help provide peace of mind.

What are the different types of medical alert systems?

Most brands of medical alert systems offer a portable device that users can wear, such as a watch, bracelet, or necklace. Other systems may consist of standing devices you place in a common area of your home. Some may even come in the form of a smartwatch.

Regardless of what type of medical alert system you choose, each one is equipped with a panic button so you can press it and access help in case of a medical emergency.

What are the benefits of a medical alert device?

With a medical alert device, you may be able to alert someone for help when you’re otherwise incapacitated due to a fall or another type of medical emergency. If you are wearing a device, you can send an alert for help from your home, in the shower, or when outside the house.

While medical alert devices aren’t completely foolproof, the benefits that they do provide can offer peace of mind and may also help older adults maintain their independence.

From home systems to mobile devices with basic push-button alarms, or even advanced safety monitoring, today’s medical alert systems arguably have more features than ever.

While advanced features may be beneficial for certain needs, all medical alert devices share the same basic purpose: to help you access emergency help when you’re alone. Aside from the benefits of their additional special features, be sure to keep your unique needs and budget in mind when you’re comparing these devices.