I’ve been poking at emergency medical / alert systems for a number of years. Today, I’m going to focus on the benefits and drawbacks of central monitoring systems and autodialers such as offered by Life Alert, Lifeline, Alert-1, Lifestation, ADT Companion, Medical Alert by Connect America, Walgreens Ready Response, Alarmcare, CVS Medical Alert, Medical Guardian, American Medical Alarms, and American Senior Safety.
Many central office / autodialer systems are advertised on TV, and in print media and as such are the most well known approach to medical alarms/monitoring. Some are connected with medical centers and/or pharmacies.
The benefits of such systems are:
1. 24/7 central office availability, this is perhaps their biggest and best feature if done well.
2. The ability to talk with the central office after pressing an alert button provides for optimal response. Ie not every emergency requires EMS response, and such a method also reduces the potential for un-necessary EMS dispatch and/or false alarms.
3. The alert pendants are water proof, and can be worn anywhere and at any time.
4. The alert pendants have integral batteries with long life spans and as such do not require periodic charging. In order to maintain the pendants water proof status, batteries in generally are not user-serviceable. Fortunately, many systems do a periodic battery and diagnostic check and transparently send the data to the central office. Such an approach if handled well mititgates much of the the danger of system failure, in that replacements can be made well before any type of device failure occurs.
5. Most systems will operate even in the event of a power failure, as long as the local telephone system does not go down… subject of course to the limits of the systems internal battery.
6. The physical hardware is based upon exceedingly stable autodialer technology, robust analog telephone systems, simple rf remote control systems, and as a system in general is decently robust. In addition, such equipment is also under the FDA’s pervue as a medical device which serves to keep most sub par manufacturers and counterfeitors out of the business.
6. The central office is in possession of a lockbox keycode and physicial location of said lockbox just outside the customers dwelling. The idea of such, is that a neighbor, or EMS responder can be given said keycode when called out. The ultimate advantage, is that a neighbor or EMS provider can use a customer’s door key for entering the dwelling without the need to physically break a door or window. Likewise, after an activation, it is very easy to update the lockbox keycode on site and at the monitoring center and thus maintain the security of the customers home.
7. The setup and configuration / activation and test of said systems has the potential to be near 100% automated, after the customer connects it to the phone line, and plugs the power supply into a wall outlet.
However, such systems are subject to a number of shortcomings.
1. The sales techniques and business practices of some of the various vendors are worst than those of the worst used car salesman and/or loan shark firm.
2. The ability to talk with the central office after pressing the alert button is exceedingly limited. Yes, in an outdoor super quiet environment, such systems may allow for communication up to a 50 meter range. However, if one is using a shower or running water, wears a hearing aid, and/or has a tv at high volume, or is on another floor other than where the main unit is located, the probability of a successful verbal communication is exceedingly low.
3. 24/7 central monitoring centers vary a great deal in service and response. Most are UL listed, but even then, service can vary widely. A few vendors outsource their monitoring services to a third party, some of which are better than other internal operations. A good central office is worth its weight in gold. A bad one is worse than no system at all… the problem is, the consumer often doesnt know a good one from a bad one until its too late.
4. Such systems depend upon a users cognitive and physicial ability to press the pendant call button. In the event of a serious fall, and or partial dementia, the probability of the user pressing the call button is substantially reduced.
5. The costs of 24/7 monitoring can be substantial, to say nothing of other fees. Many systems would cost over $1000 for 3 years of service.
6. The alert pendants are typically worn around ones neck, and the FDA has reported cases of strangulation and/or injury when the pendant breakaway function did not work as designed.
7. As more and more people leave the world of analog telephone service behind, there exists a serious gap in this approach. VOIP is no where near as robust as analog telephone service, especially in the event of severe weather or electrical disruption. Likewise, cellular service is even worse in such regards, to say nothing of the massive issues involved with trying to couple an alert system to a cell phone.
8. While many hardware manufactures provide automated diagnostics to prevent failures and gaps in coverage, it is up to the vendor to step up to the plate when a device notifies them that it is in danger of failing. A good vendor manages this well, bad ones will drop the ball, and gaps in coverage are exceedingly possible.
9. Some pendant test procedures are excessively convoluted, which seems goofy in that weekly and/or monthly testing is highly recommended. Most assuredly if one of my customers had to jump said steps, they would quickly tell me to go jump… and they would be right.
The bottom line
Ultimately, this is a buyer beware industry to the max… Contracts need to be read through with a fine tooth comb, and likewise every t and every i dotted and double checked. Such decisions should never be made on the spur of the moment no matter how much pressure is exerted by the sales guy.