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Medical Alert Systems: Top 10 Questions to Ask Before You Buy

Medical alert systems (or personal emergency response systems) are wonderful devices that allow older adults the opportunity to stay in their (safer) homes and remain as independent as possible. Keeping up with this new technology is hard, and knowing what questions to ask is even harder! If you haven’t seen our Medical Alert System Overview, you should check it out and provide feedback (especially if you’ve had experience with any of the featured manufacturers). Today’s focus on medical alert systems is aptly titled Top 10 Questions to Ask When Evaluating Medical Alert Systems. So without further goodbyes… Here’s our top 10 list (drum roll please):

1. Does this medical alert system work with VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phone services? If you have Comcast or Verizon cable at home, chances are you’re using them for your (home) phone service as well. If that’s the case, you’re likely using a VOIP plan (just like we do with Vonage, another major VOIP provider). Many of the traditional medical alert system providers recommend checking with your home phone (VOIP) provider to see if they offer local 911 (and other) services. So keep this in mind and ask*. (*Note: Alert system providers will know about their compatibility with major phone service providers.)

2. What is the scope of my alert system? MOST major medical alert system vendors have the following components included in their “systems”. A base station and a pendant of some kind (necklace, worn around the neck, a belt clip, or a wristwatch-like device. The myHalo system even has a chest strap). MOST pendants need to communicate (wirelessly) with a base station that is connected to your home phone line. So you need to know the range of that during the base station. Typically this range covers most normal size homes and is in the neighborhood of 400 to 600 feet. After installation, be sure to test the kitchen inside (and outside) of the house.

3. Does someone install it for me or do I do it myself? Many manufacturers have sales/marketing representatives that will come to your house and install/test the system for you. They typically charge a one-time setup fee for this service, so ask about that fee in advance! If all they do is send you the alert system, make sure there is plenty of literature (online and offline) for help with setup AND testing. Always TEST your medical alert system before using it.

4. Do I need a landline phone to use this medical alert system? In most cases the answer will be YES, but there are some exceptions. For example, the MobileHelp medical alert system has a small handheld device that connects to AT&T Wireless for use outside the home (anywhere AT&T covers). However, to use your pendant device (small necklace) at home, you still need a landline. In addition, Wellcore’s Personal Emergency Response System has the ability to interface with select cell phones to extend the range of your device outside the home.

5. Who handles your call center, where are they located, and what are the average response times? Okay, this is a bit of a trick question, because call center “outsourcing” has been a trend that many, many companies are taking advantage of. Quite frankly, I have found excellent service in call centers all over the world, and the only thing you need to look at here is PERFORMANCE.

6. Does the medical alert system come with other services? Some medical alert systems come with additional services like medication reminders, glucose monitoring reminders, and the like. It’s good to know what other services may be included with the purchase of their services, so be sure to ask what is included.

7. What if something goes wrong with my equipment? Most of us hate reading the fine print. I defy anyone to read the “terms and conditions” of the 5 or 6 medic alert devices you want to review (it gives me a headache to even think of doing it again). So, in mind, I would encourage anyone making a decision on a particular device to ask; What happens if your system fails? Is someone out to fix it? Will they send you another one ASAP? Do you need to return the dysfunctional system? etc Also, one other point… when you’ve narrowed down your choice, read the fine print by looking for the particular provider’s terms and conditions on their websites.

8. Does the medical alert system include “automatic fall detection”? Medical alert systems have come a long way in the last 5 years. Today’s advanced systems can automatically detect when a user has crashed. It’s all in the advanced algorithms developed by brilliant engineers and embedded into tiny devices that save lives every day. These intelligent systems can distinguish (in most cases) between when someone has actually fallen and when someone has abruptly decided to sit down. The “big three” that (currently) offer automatic fall detection are Halo Monitoring Systems, Wellcore Personal Emergency Response, and Philips Lifeline with automatic alert.

9. Am I buying these devices, or renting them, or neither? Going back to my earlier tip about reading the fine print… Find out (ahead of time) if the equipment is yours or not. What if you no longer need the equipment? What happens if you damage the equipment?

10 What is my total annual cost? This boils down to the “brass tax”… How much does this cost me each year (total cash outflow)? Enough talk.


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