Can an Unmonitored Medical Alert System Keep You Safe at Home?

Two experts discuss whether unmonitored medical alert systems work.

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With life expectancy increasing around the world, people are living longer than they ever have before. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that growing older has become easier, or that every senior has a support network close by. 

That’s why medical alert systems, also known as personal emergency response systems (PERS), life alert systems, and health monitoring systems, are becoming more and more popular. These systems are designed to extend your ability to live independently on your own, even if you have health concerns such as dementia or a history of falls. Since 1992, dozens of studies have concluded that the use of medical alert systems offers older users confidence and safety as they live independently. 

One 2017 study showed that the use of any medical alert protection system decreased the length of time seniors needed to stay in the hospital after an emergency and was also linked to a better quality of life after being discharged. This could be because people using a medical alert system tend to receive medical attention more quickly if they fall or have another health emergency at home. 

Finding the best medical alert system can be quite a project. Some of these systems have expensive monthly fees that aren’t realistic for every budget. Unmonitored medical alert systems give you direct access to medical assistance right away if you need it, without the monthly costs of a monitoring service. These types of systems do work, and they can be a good option for a select group of people. However, they aren’t for everyone. 

We spoke with two experts about what you should know if you’re considering an unmonitored medical alert system for yourself or a loved one. 

What is an unmonitored medical alert system? 

“An unmonitored system is a nonverbal communication vehicle,” explains Dr. James Dan, a geriatric specialist in Oak Brook, Illinois and a member of Senior Helpers board of directors. In other words, it’s a wearable device that summons a paramedic without any words being exchanged, like through the press of a button 

These “one-button” systems set off an alarm that immediately connects to 911 and sends medical assistance. These systems may also be set up to alert an in-home caregiver or a family member outside of the home that there is a medical emergency. Unmonitored medical alert systems are often tied to a landline, which can sometimes mean they connect more quickly to emergency assistance (and will work even if cell service isn’t available).

In contrast, monitored medical alert systems connect you directly to a team of people who have been trained to walk you through an emergency. If you fall or get hurt at home, you can describe your symptoms to the monitoring service team. They can help you determine if you need to go to the hospital, as well as contact a pre-selected network of your loved ones who can help. 

Unmonitored medical alert systems may work best for people who don’t live alone, who have in-home care available most of the time, or who are on a budget and otherwise could not afford any type of medical alert system. You may also benefit from an unmonitored medical alert system if you’ve recently been discharged from the hospital; research shows that your chance of having a fall quadruples in the first two weeks that you are home after a hospital stay. 

What are the pros and cons of unmonitored medical alert systems? 

When selecting any type of fall protection or other medical alert system, you’re going to need to think about your personal needs and health history. “The individual getting the device needs to be the person who is going to benefit the most,” says Linda Keilman, a gerontological nurse practitioner and an assistant professor of nursing at Michigan State University. “The point is to help the individual live a quality life, with available assistance, to allow them their independence, as long as they are safe, for as long as possible.”

“Although helpful, these [unmonitored] systems are not ideal for the fragile elderly, especially those living independently,” says Dan. He cites the fact that these systems do not offer an opportunity for direct verbal communication to determine what type of help is needed. 

Without human interaction, you’re leaving it up to an automated machine to decide what to do in every situation. When using an unmonitored medical alert system, all emergencies result in the immediate dispatch of paramedics or an ambulance. 

It’s also important to remember that unmonitored medical alert systems don’t typically come with any fall detection technology. When you fall and can’t get up, there’s a strong chance that you’re also unconscious. Without automatic fall detection, any medical alert system loses a significant amount of value. 

“Anyone over the age of 65 who is at risk for falls or has a history of falls should probably consider a monitored device,” says Keilman. She notes that unless a person agrees to wear the device at all times in case of an emergency, the device will be useless whether it’s monitored or not.

Dan expressed a similar opinion. “Falls are a good example of the value of monitored systems,” he says, explaining that fall detection works via sensors that directly connect with the call monitoring center. Since falls are the number one reason why older people lose their independence, any expense that minimizes the damage of a fall is in your best interest. If dementia or wandering are a concern, additional products can be purchased through monitored systems to ensure no one gets lost. 

One big benefit of unmonitored systems is that they don’t typically require a monthly subscription. These subscriptions can run from $30 to $70 (or even more) every month, so the yearly costs add up fast. If money is a concern and you’re looking for a basic system that will give you access to emergency services, it may make sense to get an unmonitored medical alert system. At the very least, it will provide you and your loved ones with some peace of mind. It’s certainly better than not having any type of medical alert system at all.

Above all, a person’s day-to-day practical concerns need to be a part of choosing a medical alert system product. “These devices can assist in getting help to the individual as quickly as possible. The quicker there is help, the quicker there is healing,” Keilman says. 

Resources

The Medical Alert System Global Market is Expected to Reach $10.9 Billion by 2026. PR Newswire. (2021) https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-medical-alert-system-global-market-is-expected-to-reach-10-9-billion-by-2026–301315546.html

Healthcare utilization in older patients using personal emergency response systems: an analysis of electronic health records and medical alert data. US National Library of Medicine

National Institutes of Health. (2017) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5395921/

The Personal Emergency Response System as a Technology Innovation in Primary Health Care Services: An Integrative Review. US National Library of Medicine

National Institutes of Health. (2016) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4965612/

Falls in the elderly. US National Library of Medicine

National Institutes of Health. (2011) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3135440/