Page Reviewed / Updated – October 31, 2020

Small, wearable and water-resistant, medical alert systems can add an extra layer of safety for seniors, people living with disabilities, and anyone else who might benefit from having a simple, one-touch way to call for help.

Also known as panic buttons or personal emergency response devices, monitored medical alert systems come in a wide range of sizes, styles and prices, but they all function in a similar way. These systems connect users to a 24/7 call response center via a wearable help button.

How Do Medical Alert Systems Work?

When the user activates their medical alert button, a wireless signal is sent to a base unit that contains an autodialer, which is programmed to phone the call response center. Once an operator picks up the call, they can engage in a two-way conversation with the medical alert subscriber over a speakerphone that’s either in the base unit, or integrated into the wearable help button.

The emergency operator speaks with the caller to determine what kind of assistance is needed. The operator then contacts a trusted neighbor, family member or first responders on behalf of the medical alert subscriber.

In situations where the medical alert user can’t respond to verbal prompts, the operator will usually go ahead and contact 9-1-1 with the subscribers’ name, address and contact information.

How Do Medical Alert Systems With Base Stations Work?

In-home medical alert systems with base stations use either an existing landline phone connection or a cellular phone transponder to connect the subscriber with the emergency call center.

With this type of personal emergency response system, the help buttons are usually either worn as a pendant or on a wrist strap, although some systems also offer wireless wall-mounted help buttons. In order for the wearable buttons to work, users must remain within range of the base unit, which varies between 600 and 1300 feet, depending on the device and location.

The base unit contains a two-way speakerphone as well as a help button, and most medical alert base units are equipped with an emergency backup battery to keep the unit operating in the event of a power outage.

In general, in-home medical alert systems with base stations are among the easiest types of help button systems to use, as well as the most affordable. The wearable panic buttons usually come with a long-lasting, non-rechargeable battery, and many in-home systems can support multiple wall-mounted and wearable help buttons.

How Do All-In-One Medical Alert Systems Work?

All-in-one medical alert systems combine a panic button, two-way speakerphone and cellular transponder in a single wearable device, eliminating the need for a base unit. Because these systems work off nationwide mobile phone networks, many are also equipped with GPS location technology that the call monitoring center can use to pinpoint the whereabouts of a subscriber in an emergency.

Also called mobile medical alert systems, this type of medical alert device contains a rechargeable battery that lasts anywhere from 24 hours up to 30 days. Since mobile help buttons are packed with a great deal of technology, the devices are a fair bit larger and heavier than many of the wearable help buttons that come with in-home systems.

As medical alert technology evolves, all-in-one medical alert help buttons are becoming smaller and lighter, and there are now a few medical alert smart watches that offer all of the benefits of a traditional in-home system in a watch-style device.

How Do Fall Detection Medical Alert Systems Work?

Accidental falls are among the leading causes of serious injury and death in the United States, particularly among seniors aged 65 and older. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in four seniors suffer a fall each year, and those who fall are twice as likely to fall again.

A number of medical alert companies now offer fall detection, a feature that’s designed to add an extra layer of protection for medical alert users. Although a fall detection medical alert device can’t prevent falls, it can ensure that help arrives quickly when a fall occurs, and that can make all the difference when it comes to achieving a good outcome.

Fall detection devices work by combining tiny sensors in the medical alert pendant with a specialized computer program known as a algorithm. These sensors include accelerometers that measure how quickly the pendant moves, as well as barometric sensors that can determine if the medical alert user has suddenly moved from a standing or seated position to a prone position.

When the fall detection algorithm detects the sudden changes in speed and orientation that are associated with a fall, the device automatically initiates call to the medical alert monitoring center. There’s no need for the user to activate their help button, and if the medical alert user can’t respond to the operator, the operator will dispatch emergency services to the scene.

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Frequently Asked Questions About How Medical Alert Systems Work

What factors affect the range of an in-home medical alert system?

In-home medical alert systems that include a base unit rely on wireless signals between the base unit and the help buttons. The range refers to the maximum distance between the wireless buttons and the base unit, and usually runs between 600 and 1300 feet.

As with other wireless devices, such as cordless phones and television remote controls, the range of medical alert systems depends on a number of factors. Concrete walls, multiple electronic devices and a weak battery in the help button can all reduce the range of a medical alert system.

How does location tracking work on medical alert systems?

Some cellular-connected medical alert systems include GPS location tracking. This feature lets medical alert operators pinpoint the exact location of a subscriber in an emergency, and some systems also enable location tracking through a caregiver app.

Location tracking uses the same GPS technology that’s found in smartphones. A tiny GPS receiver inside the medical alert device transmits radio waves between three or more GPS satellites and the device over wireless networks, and these signals are used to determine the location coordinates of the device. Some medical alert systems also use Wi-Fi signals to improve the accuracy of location tracking.