Risks and Limitations of Medical Alert Systems

Assistive Technology

medical alert systems

Image credit: Medical Guardian

Today’s older adults have a variety of resources to keep them feeling safe and healthy while living at home. Medical alert devices with fall detection, for example, are quite popular among active adults and seniors. These systems, along with fall alert devices or pendants, offer peace of mind knowing that assistance is never far away.

Of course, wise consumers should do their homework before purchasing a medical alert system in order to invest in the option that makes the most sense for their needs and lifestyle. Most seniors and their family members evaluate medical alert systems based on their cost, which is understandable. However, there are more considerations to think about beyond pricing.

It’s important to understand any risks or limitations of medical alert systems and fall detection devices as well. Once you understand any limitations, you can adapt your approach to decrease any risks.

What Are Some of the Risks and Limits of Medical Alert Systems?

Medical alert systems and devices are designed to give users the assistance they need, when they need it. Companies, such as Medical Guardian and Philips Lifeline, are dedicated to providing the best assistance to their users. However, there are some limitations to their services that can include dead batteries, loss of phone services, user compliance issues, and more.

Here are common limitations of medical alert systems and how to combat them.

Loss of Phone Service

When medical alert systems first arrived on the scene, it was common to have the base system in the home, wired to use the landline phone. If at any point, the phone service was disconnected or paused, the base device would not have a way to contact assistance. This, of course, was uncommon but it could have serious consequences since the user would not be able to contact emergency personnel or assistance.

Fortunately, many medical alert device systems now are connected via cellular and do not need a landline to operate. This can decrease the risk of losing phone service and with some systems, give users more freedom to get out and about while still being able to use their pendant or device.

The Battery in the Help Button is Depleted or Defective

Medical alert systems include some type of help button, typically in a pendant or bracelet. Unfortunately, these pendants do require a charged battery to be fully functional. Some include long-life non-rechargeable batteries while others require recharging in a charging station. Fortunately, medical alert device companies have found ways to stretch the battery life of their rechargeable devices. This means that users are no longer bound by charging their devices every day.

When searching for a device and system, ensure you find out whether the device needs charging or how often the device needs to be charged. The fewer times you have to take off the device to charge it, the better. Also, if the pendant does not require charging, find out  how long the battery lasts before it needs to be replaced.  

Medical Guardian, for example, has devices that feature a low battery indicator and can last approximately 3-5 years. Philips Lifeline has an 18-month battery life while Life Alert Systems features a battery that lasts up to 10 years.

Automatic Fall Detection May Not Always Work

Fall detection technology, while advanced, is not always foolproof.

One of the key developments in the medical alert system industry over the past decade has been the addition of automatic fall detection. This option uses multiple detection sensors to distinguish between normal daily activity and a fall. Thanks to automatic fall detection, users do not necessarily need to push their button for help; the sensors detect the fall and contact the monitoring center on the user’s behalf.

There can be certain situations when the automatic fall detection technology might not pick up a fall or create too many false alarms. Unfortunately, technology is not always 100% reliable. In this case, there is no easy fix on the user’s end. However, it is still important to recognize these potential complications.

Problems with User Compliance

Fall detection devices only work when the user wears them and takes good care of them. Sometimes, older adults reject the idea of a pendant or other device because they would rather just use their cell phone as their emergency plan. However, this means they must keep their cell phone on them at all times, which is not realistic for all daily activities including showering.

As a user yourself, you can ensure you are following best practices like:

  • Wearing your pendant or watch-style device all the time
  • Charging the battery regularly, if required
  • Pay for the service on time each month
  • Test your device as recommended by the company

Unconscious Patient

Most medical alert devices require the user to push their help button in order to connect with the monitoring center. However, if a user falls, has a seizure, or becomes unconscious, they may be physically unable to push their button to request assistance.

Most device systems combat this complication with automatic fall detection or activity detection, which uses motion sensors and doors contacts spread around the home to sense whether you are active or not. While there are some situations when fall detection may not work or activity sensors create too many false alerts, these are by far the best ways to alert the monitoring center or loved ones in cases when there has been unusual activity or inactivity.

In Summary

Medical alert devices and systems have come a long way over the past few decades. Today’s active adults can expect stylish pendants and watch-style devices that use GPS, cellular and WiFi in order to pinpoint their location. Fall detection technology and activity sensors can alert the monitoring center and loved ones on behalf of the user, which can be especially helpful if the user ends up unconscious.

However, even the best systems can have their own risks or limitations. While you cannot eliminate every risk or concern with the system you choose, you can adapt a few of your habits and even ask the right questions during your medical alert device research to choose the best option for you or your loved one.