Do you remember the television ads from the 1980s for a product called LifeAlert? It showed a woman on the floor yelling, “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” These ads introduced millions of late-night television viewers to a whole new (at the time) product category: simple hand-held medical alert devices. Wear them around your neck or on your wrist and, when faced with a medical emergency, a touch of a button ensures that help is on the way.
Study Shows Many Medical Alert Devices Have “Serious Drawbacks”
Or is it? As we were scanning recent articles for our AgingOptions blog, we found this one just published on the NextAvenue website. “Just How Well Do Medical Alert Devices Work?” asked the title – adding that “An independent study showed many have serious drawbacks.” Considering the fact that many seniors and their families count on these devices for personal safety, this seems to be a timely topic, especially when you consider that the North American market for personal emergency response systems is projected to top $3 billion next year. But an independent consumer advocacy group called Consumers’ Checkbook has tested most of the major brands on the market, and issued a warning: “Families should understand what a loved one’s medical alert device can and can’t do before they sign up for a service.”
We decided to go to the source and take a look at the original test results, published here on the Consumers’ Checkbook website. (Although the NextAvenue story was just published, the original test was apparently done in late 2018.) “We hit the panic button – 290 times! – to test the value of these gadgets,” the article cleverly begins. The basics of medical alert devices are simple and straightforward: if a senior in crisis can’t reach a phone to dial 911, she can press a button on the company’s device, which connects her to a live operator who then evaluates the need and, if appropriate, calls 911. That was the premise of those ads from the 1980s, and it’s still the basic model in use today. “Of course,” says the article, “technology has changed a lot since those years when landline phones were the norm, cell phones were for the rich and famous, and only half the U.S. population was served by 911 centers. Today more than 3 million (mostly senior) customers own these gadgets, and many models can use cell signals to communicate. They cost about $11 to $52 a month.”
Among Biggest Drawbacks of Medical Alert Devices: Speed of Response
In the models tested by Consumers’ Checkbook, one of the biggest drawbacks was the speed of response, especially in a true emergency when a call to 911 is clearly appropriate. As the article asks, is a medical alert device the best tool for the job of calling 911 for help? “Most of them are not, and our tests of several different models found many companies actually delay emergency response, not facilitate it.” According to the test, medical alert devices are “helpful to callers who have a less-than-911 problem.” One industry leader claimed in the article than “nine times out of 10” the calls to medical alert monitors aren’t true emergencies at all. “They don’t necessarily need 911. They want us to call someone else,” such as a friend or relative, he stated. That means, as the article says, for a monthly monitoring fee “you can get a device that works kind of like a cell phone but is far easier to operate—after all, there’s usually just one button to deal with.”
Only one of the 11 units tested (offered by GreatCall) allows users to bypass the call center and connect directly to 911 operators. All the others connect to a company call center whose staff determines whether to contact your local 911 dispatcher. “Those tasks—waiting for the call center to pick up, talking to you through the device to assess your need, calling 911 for you, relaying your information to a 911 operator—consume precious time.” And response time, experts say, is absolutely critical for effective emergency response. The Consumers’ Checkbook article explained that operators in 911 centers have a goal of answering 95 percent of calls within 20 seconds – then they quickly assess the situation, determine the victim’s location, and decide who to send. But in the test of medical alert devices, only three had an average connect time to the call center of 30 seconds or less; three other devices had average wait times of one minute, while others took two and even three minutes to connect, an eternity in a true emergency situation.
More Problems with Medical Alert Devices: False Alarms and Poor Location Data
Besides the familiar emergency call button, many medical alert devices can be equipped with a feature that automatically detects when a user takes a tumble. Unfortunately, however, false alarms are common with the fall-detection system. In fact, according to Consumers’ Checkbook, “medical alert devices are notorious for false alarms” – and not just for the fall-detection feature. “Some of the devices we tested sent false alarms during shipment to us. Once they arrived, even more false alarms. On a few occasions our receptionist looked up to find paramedics at our office front door, ready with gurney, oxygen, defibrillator, the works.” Other false alarms during the tests were triggered by “bumpy car rides, moving them from table to desk, or just…sitting still. At other times we couldn’t trigger fall detection alerts by deliberately dropping the things.” As a result, the reviewers have a blanket recommendation: “We say optional fall-detection features should be avoided unless you are buying for someone who is confined to bed.”
According to the article, 911 staff members are not fans of medical alert devices. Not only are they prone to false alarms, but the systems often provide inadequate location information, flaws which “needlessly tie up 911 staff and sending EMS crews on wild goose chases, delaying responses to real emergencies.” The bottom line is to read the product review and recommendations on the Consumers’ Checkbook site and decide whether a medical alert device, or simply a basic cell phone designed for seniors, might be your best bet.
A Good Retirement Starts with the Right Plan
One thing is for sure: when it comes to retirement, your best bet is a comprehensive plan. Too many people enter retirement without preparation only to find their retirement dreams quickly dashed. But if you take some time to learn some of the basics, you’ll be armed with the knowledge to make the right decisions about your finances, your medical care, your housing choices, your legal decisions and your family relationships. Here’s our recommendation: please accept our invitation to join Rajiv Nagaich from AgingOptions at one of his highly-popular (and absolutely free) LifePlanning Seminars. In a fun and lively format, he’ll explain how to create the retirement you’ve always dreamed of by utilizing the power of a LifePlan. We know you’ll be very glad you came!
Visit our Live Events page for a calendar of upcoming seminar dates and locations – then register online or give us a call. We’ll look forward to meeting you soon. Meanwhile, “Age on!”
(originally reported at www.checkbook.org)