We're big proponents of medical alert systems. We think they save lives, help people stay active, support people living in their own homes longer, and provide caregivers respite and peace of mind.
However, there are risks and limitations to medical alert systems, as there are with every technology and service. Cell phones are great, but run out of power and have spotty reception, cars are convenient but need maintenance and cause pollution, airlines get us from A to B but treat us like cattle... you get the idea.
So we're going to identify what we believe are some of the more common risks and limitations of medical alert systems you should be aware of, and also discuss how you can best reduce those risks.
Risk #1: What if you forget to hang-up the phone or it's left off the hook, will the medical alert system still work?
If your phone is left off the hook or you forget to hang-up the receiver properly after a conversation, most medical alert systems should be able to disconnect the previous call and still call out to the monitoring station when the emergency button is pressed.
However, if it's a frequent problem, we'd suggest getting a cellular in-home medical alert system, which will solve the problem altogether and eliminate 100% of the risk. Instead of your medical alert system sharing the landline with your phone, it will use a cellular network such as AT&T or Verizon and be completely independent of your landline, and will always make that call for you.
Risk #2: What if the medical alert system becomes disconnected from the phone line?
If a landline medical alert system becomes disconnected from the phone line, it's not going to work. A landline medical alert system contacts the monitoring station via your phone line. If the line gets pulled out of the jack or out of the medical alert system, it simply won't work.
This should not be a significant risk for most people. How often does your landline phone get disconnected? Just make sure the line connecting your system to the phone jack is not in a place it can be easily tampered with.
If your phone line is unreliable for whatever reason, an alternative solution is to get a cellular home based medical alert system. A cellular home based medical alert system works exactly like the landline version, except instead of the base unit using your phone line to connect to the monitoring station, it uses a separate cellular network.
Risk #3: What if the battery in the emergency help button dies?
For most in-home systems, the battery life on the emergency help button is pretty long, as in 10 years, so it's not much of a problem. However, as an extra precaution, even if it does run out of power, a signal will be sent to the monitoring station and they will notify you and should give you a replacement help button free of charge.
That said, the help buttons on mobile / GPS medical alert systems do have to be recharged quite frequently, as in every 1 to 5 days, depending on the system. The solution there is to get in the habit of charging your system every night, on your nightstand, so it remains next to you at all times. Most (make sure to verify) will also have an indicator light, letting you know if and when the system needs to be recharged.
Risk #4: What if the system malfunctions and just doesn't work?
Nothing is full proof! At some point computers, TV's and phones all stop working, and yes it could happen to your medical alert system too.
However, to mitigate the risk, medical alert companies send a ping to your medical alert system to ensure it's working. If they don't get a ping back, they will contact you. It could be because your phone or power line is disconnected from the medical alert device or because it actually malfunctioned. If it malfunctioned, they should send you a new system free of charge.
Alternatively, you can press and test your help button as often as you'd like (weekly or even daily if you want) to make sure your system is working. Once connected to the monitoring center, just let the dispatcher on the other end of the line know it's a test, and you'll have the comfort of knowing your system is up and running just fine. It should not cost you a dime to test.
Risk #5: What happens if a fall or accident occurs and you can't press the button because of injury or unconsciousness?
This happens more than people think. The good news is, there is now a technology called fall detection, available for both in home and mobile systems, which can detect a sudden change in height or an impact followed by no movement. So if you fall, hit your head, or are unconscious, the system will automatically call for help. It usually costs an extra $5 to $10 a month for automatic fall detection.
Every technology, product or service has its limitations. Medical alert systems are not different. What's important is to know what those limitations are, whether and how you can overcome them, and which medical alert solution is right for you given your goals, habits and lifestyle.
We recommend you call your medical alert company and discuss your concerns with them. They should be in a good position to walk you through which technology and service will best meet your goals and address the risks you're most concerned about.