The Best Medical Alert System
- November 6, 2017 - Our runner-up, Bay Alarm, is holding a Black Friday sale through the month of November, with monthly plans starting at $19.95. (Non-sale pricing typically starts at $27.95.)
- October 26, 2017 - To stay current, we’ve retested all of our finalists and updated this review to include our new results. Medical Guardian and Bay Alarm continue to hold onto their top spots thanks to impressive customer service, while former runner-up MobileHelp was cut for offering a less impressive range of equipment than our other contenders.
Medical alert systems perform one essential function: push a button, get help. These answering machine-sized units can be placed within your home and connect you (or your loved one) to a monitoring center at the press of a button. Trained staff will field the call and contact family members or medical responders in the event of an emergency. The best medical alert system offers speedy response times, plus reliable equipment that will keep seniors connected and safely independent. In this review, we focused on medical alert devices meant to be used in the home — for active seniors in need of security on the go, we’ve reviewed mobile GPS devices in a separate review.
Best Overall: Medical Guardian
Medical Guardian was our favorite, beating out other finalists thanks to an easy ordering process, quick setup, and helpful customer support. But what really won it the top spot was its mastery of the one thing medical alert systems are meant to do: provide help, fast. Medical Guardian’s response time was almost twice as speedy as the rest of our finalists: We only had to wait 39 seconds, on average, before we were connected with our monitoring center, versus a full minute from other finalists. Unlike runner-up Bay Alarm, Medical Guardian doesn’t offer a free trial, which means it’s best for people who are already certain that they want a medical alert system. Monthly packages begin at $29.95, and Medical Guardian’s website walks you through the process of choosing the right equipment for your needs.
Runner-Up: Bay Alarm
Bay Alarm was a strong runner-up. We appreciated how smooth and straightforward the ordering process was, and found that Bay Alarm's setup was just as straightforward as Medical Guardian's. Bay Alarm's response time was a little slower — about 60 seconds — but the company does offer a 30-day free trial, making it a good option if you’re not yet totally committed to the idea of a medical alert system and want to try it out first. Packages begin at $27.95 per month ($19.95 through the month of November).
We considered three other systems — Medical Alert, OneCallAlert, and LifeStation — and while they performed decently, we found their equipment and setup processes less intuitive, and their contracts less upfront about pricing. We’re convinced that Medical Guardian and Bay Alarm represent your two best options.
How We Found the Best Medical Alert System
To find the best medical alert system, we talked with elder-care experts, dug into service agreements and order processes, and hand-tested the top contenders. We started our search by compiling all the medical alert companies we could find that met two criteria:
Nationwide coverage. We wanted medical alert systems that would be available anywhere in the US, so we skipped regional providers.
No unnecessary equipment. Many home security companies offer personal emergency response systems, but only as add-ons to a larger suite of security offerings. With so many standalone services available, there’s no need to install an entire security system — that would be like buying a Swiss army knife just for the corkscrew.
This left us with a starting pool of 23 medical alert providers.
In recent years, advances in tech — such as fall detection, mobile GPS tracking, and even medical monitoring — have allowed companies to broaden their product offerings. We’ll talk about what these features are and whether they’re important in a minute. But all 23 of our finalists still focus on providing the same fundamental service: push a button and get help.
- Acadian On Call Mobile Medical Alert
- ADT Health, Alert1
- American Medical Alarm//Senior Safety
- Bay Alarm Medical
- Better Alerts
- First Response System
- GreatCall Lively
- Medical Alert
- Medical Guardian
- Philips Lifeline
- Prime Medical Alert
- Rescue Alert
- Walgreens ReadyResponse
Our 5 Finalists for Best Medical Alert System
- Medical Guardian (800-340-5421)
Monthly Service Cost: $29.95
Response Time: 39 seconds
- Bay Alarm Medical (800-613-5391)
Monthly Service Cost: $27.95
Response Time: 60 seconds
- OneCallAlert (800-994-1846)
Monthly Service Cost: $29.95
Response Time: 61 seconds
- Medical Alert (800-800-2537)
Monthly Service Cost: $32.99
Response Time: 74 seconds
- LifeStation (800-884-8888)
Monthly Service Cost: $24.99
Response Time: 66 seconds
We looked for companies with upfront pricing and a painless ordering process.
On paper, most medical alert companies look identical — the exact same products at very similar price points. We found that customer service is one of the main things that sets them apart. Factors like website layout, FAQs, live chat, and a help hotline can be the difference between a breezy 10-minute ordering process or an hours-long ordeal.
When we talked with Scott Knoll, MSW and owner of in-home senior care agency By Your Side Home Care, about how to find a reputable service, he told us, “Look for a company that transparently lists prices and services on their website — while not requiring a lock-in contract.” Many companies had fees hidden behind asterisks: Alert1, ResponseLINK, GreatCall Lively, and Philips Lifeline all added $50-60 activation fees at checkout, with no prior warning. (In fact, Alert1 even claimed to offer “free activation.”) We also docked points from providers that locked us into long-term contracts, preferring LifeStation’s month-to-month plans and Bay Alarm’s 30-day trial period.
We dinged companies if they didn’t provide multiple ways to order, too: While some seniors might feel more comfortable ordering over the phone, many customers are younger people shopping for their elders. Online ordering should be standard and simple.
After evaluating each company's ordering experience and tallying up our scores, we cut the companies that performed below average. The best medical alert providers should offer ample support and painless checkout.
Alert1, American Medical Alarm//Senior Safety, First Response System, GreatCall Lively, LifeAlert, LifeFone, LifeRun, Philips Lifeline, Prime Medical Alert, Rescue Alert, ResponseLINK
Then we assessed each provider for quality equipment.
To evaluate equipment, we began by looking for two basic pieces of technology. Given that over 60% of falls occur in the tub or shower, we saw no reason why any service’s wearable devices shouldn’t be waterproofed. We also wanted all units that relied on a wall plug to be equipped with battery backup in case of power outages.
How do I know which equipment I need?Any decent medical alert company provides resources to help you choose a system without being pushy about an upsell. Medical Guardian, for instance, lets you take a quiz to find the device that suits your need.
The exact features of your medical alert system will vary by lifestyle — if you’re worried about travel outside of the home, GPS-enabled equipment can provide on-the-go monitoring. If falls are a concern, many devices can be specifically equipped with fall detection technology. These extra features aren’t always necessary, but we gave extra points to providers, like Medical Guardian, that offered a comprehensive range of options.
After scoring each company for their equipment offerings, we again removed companies that scored below average — focusing on the 5 finalists that achieved full points.
Acadian On Call Mobile Medical Alert, ADT Health, Better Alerts, MediPendant, MobileHelp, Philips Lifeline, Prime Medical Alert, QMedic, Rescue Alert, ResponseLINK, Walgreens ReadyResponse
We placed multiple orders with each finalist — then tested the equipment for easy installation.
From each of our 5 finalists, we ordered both a landline and a cellular medical alert system. Once all 10 arrived, we unboxed them and assessed how easy it was to get each system up and running: We wanted to be sure there weren’t user obstacles in the design of the equipment itself.
We know, we found this confusing too. Landlines are your most basic option: Each units is about the size of an answering machine, plugs into your phone jack, and has an emergency/help button. The unit will come with a pendant or a wristband that communicates wirelessly with the base station and can be pressed for help when the user is in other parts of the home. Cellular systems function the exact same way, but instead of being connected to your phone jack, they rely on cellular coverage to operate. They’re less susceptible to power outages, but they’re also less reliable in remote areas that have spotty cell service.
LifeStation underwhelmed us here: Thanks to unclear instructions, we were left befuddled when a loud, automated voice shouted "timer off" upon plug-in, and we had to guess at what the “Clear” and “Home” buttons were for (the unit yelled "ready for learning" when we pressed the Clear button, which didn’t help). Others, like Medical Guardian and Medical Alert, kept it simple, only requiring us to plug in our units and press a button to receive help.
If you’re buying a medical alert system for the first time, it’s a good idea to keep it as simple as possible. If there are too many buttons or too many features, many seniors will say, ‘Forget it, are you kidding me? I can barely work two remote controls.’
Once we set up the base units, we tried out their accompanying pendants and wristbands to see which were the most comfortable. We docked points for scratchy wristbands, unattractive colors, and designs that felt heavy or awkward when worn. Our favorites were sleekly designed and didn’t irritate our skin or immediately scream “medical alert” for all the world to see.
Finally, we called (and called) to see how quickly we received help.
As a final step, we placed at least five test calls to each company’s monitoring center — both by hitting the base unit’s emergency button and by pressing the buttons on our pendants and wristbands — then timing how quickly (or slowly) each call was picked up. Medical Guardian took the lead with a speedy 39-second response time. Medical Alert nearly doubled it, at 74 seconds.
We also noted the general manner of each operator when they picked up: Did they mention our names? Were they pleasant and professional? We had a uniformly good experience at this step: All of the people we spoke with were polite and kind, asking us to confirm multiple times per call that no one was in actually in danger. This is likely due to the fact that all of our finalists had monitoring centers with third-party certification for proper training, either from Underwriter Labs (UL) or the Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA).
We called each customer service line, too, with a list of questions about setup, installation, terms and conditions, and cancellation. Our experience here was more mixed. The best customer service reps picked up immediately, and were helpful and polite while thoroughly answering our questions. The worst put us on hold, or, in Bay Alarm’s cause, became a little snippy when we asked about cancellation. Most of our finalists fell in between, but truly excellent service — fast, polite, professional — helped Medical Guardian stand out.
Our Picks for Best Medical Alert Systems
Medical Guardian blew the competition out of the water with its incredible response times. Other finalists required us to wait at least a full minute between placing our emergency calls and receiving a response (a surprisingly long time when you’re counting every second), but Medical Guardian averaged 39 seconds across five test calls. We let the operator know each time that we were only testing, but in a real emergency, those extra seconds matter.
In fact, Medical Guardian had uniformly impressive customer service. When we called their helpline, our call was answered immediately, unlike the 4-5 minute holds LifeStation and Medical Alert put us on, and the rep helpfully answered our questions before wishing us a good evening by name. Medical Guardian was also one of the few companies with a live chat option. We were a little skeptical of this feature: When we tested Acadian On Call’s live chat, the initial responses that we got seemed canned, and we were disconnected from our rep halfway through. But our (human) Medical Guardian rep’s name and phone number appeared as soon as our chat began — giving us a way to address follow-up question to the same person — and we had the option of forwarding our chat transcripts via email, helpful if you’re a caregiver collecting information on behalf of someone else.
During setup, we were delighted with how straightforward activation was. The device was ready to place emergency calls as soon as we plugged it in. This was a relief compared to LifeStation, which left us confused and frustrated when our first two call attempts were dropped. Medical Guardian also clearly lays out how to cancel an accidental call, which is more useful than you might think: Our Medical Alert cellular unit summoned paramedics to our office after we bumped against the unit and couldn’t figure out how to cancel the alert quickly enough. Like all of our finalists, Medical Guardian also allows you to contact a customized list of emergency contacts before calling emergency services: this means you can contact trusted family or friends instead of emergency personnel at your discretion.
We had just one qualm with Medical Guardian during setup. We received two instruction booklets: a quick-start guide, and a more in-depth instruction manual. The manual had a comprehensive list of clearly labelled diagrams that explained how the device worked, which we loved — but the font was small enough to be difficult for vision-impaired seniors. It’s easy to use the system without reading through these details, but for vision-impaired folks who want to understand every detail of their system should plan on having a caregiver present.
We found that most brands “twinned” equipment with at least one other brand — LifeStation, Bay Alarm, and Medical Alert, for example, had the exact same cellular equipment, just in different colors. Among our finalists, Medical Guardian had a unique base unit design, its landline model much less clunky and ugly than brands like LifeStation, and its cellular model including date, time, and temperature on its visual display — not a necessity by any means, but a nice touch when most other units resembled vintage answering machines.
Medical Guardian also had the most unique wearables: like every brand, you can choose to receive a watch or a pendant with your order. But while most of the watches had an ugly, scratchy velcro wristband, or displayed the standard white-and-grey button with a cross that was obviously medical alert equipment, the Medical Guardian band looked more sleek and (dare we say) space-age. Testers with slender wrists found it bulky and preferred the pendant, but both wearables left us feeling unusually stylish.
Medical Guardian’s main con is that it offers no free trial and requires a 3-month commitment before you can move on to a month-to-month plan. You do still have 10 days from the time you receive the equipment to send it back for a refund (minus a $50 restocking fee), but if you miss that window, you’ll have to pay for the full three months’ initial commitment. This isn’t a problem if you’re already certain you want a medical alert system, but if you’re on the fence about committing, Bay Alarm’s 30-day trial might be a better fit.
It couldn’t quite match Medical Guardian’s record-fast response times and diverse equipment options, but Bay Alarm was a close runner-up.
During the initial ordering process, Bay Alarm made an especially strong showing: Web ordering was painless, and its crisp website had video demonstrations, a weekly blog, and clear pricing and terms. An attractively formatted FAQ page thoroughly answered our questions, and a cheerful live chat rep was waiting to walk us through our options at all times. Customer service reps responded to emails quickly and courteously — when we notified them to let them know that we were missing a terms and conditions sheet with our order, they forwarded the relevant documents to us within the same day.
When our unit arrived, it also came with a pair of spiffy striped socks — a thoughtful touch, and more useful than the cheap plastic refrigerator clip with which LifeStation tried to woo us.
But if you’re looking for something discreet, know that Bay Alarm’s base stations don’t win for their looks. The units are clunky, with nothing but a speaker and a brightly colored “Help” button. Our cellular unit alerted us to signal strength by calling out “Two bars” or “Three bars,” sometimes when weren’t expecting it — not particularly helpful, especially since we don’t know Bay Alarm’s maximum number of bars.
On average, Bay Alarm took 60 seconds to connect us to a monitoring center: faster than our other three finalists, but quite a bit longer than Medical Guardian’s 39-second average. There’s also nothing particularly stand-out about Bay Alarm’s wearables: they’re white and grey, with medical crosses clearly visible, and look identical to OneCallAlert’s’s wristband and pendant. They’re comfortable, but if you want equipment that’s not blatantly obvious about being a medical alert device, we’d suggest Medical Guardian instead.
Bay Alarm’s standout feature is that, that unlike Medical Guardian, it offers a 30-day trial period: users can receive a full refund if they return their equipment within that timeframe. And if you cancel after that, Bay Alarm will refund you for any remaining, unused months of your plan. If you want to test out your service before committing, Bay Alarm offers that flexibility. Plans can also be set up to bill at one-, three-, and six-month intervals.
Others to Consider
Its equipment looked identical to Bay Alarm’s, and functioned just as well, with easy setup and prompt customer service. Our biggest concern came from the fine print: In its Terms and Conditions, OneCallAlert retains the ability to increase its fees at any time as long as it provides 30-day written notice — unlike our top picks, which offer a price lock that guarantees the initial fee you sign up for. When we asked OneCallAlert customer service reps whether there was a cap on how much or how often their fees could be raised, we received vague, evasive responses.
Medical Alert got high marks for its clear instructions and easy setup, but a few flaws kept it from a top spot: it had the slowest response average of all the contenders at 74 seconds, and while its Terms and Conditions weren’t as worrisome as OneCallAlert’s, it does allow for a 10% price increase each year.
LifeStation’s equipment looked identical to Medical Alert’s, but its instructions failed to explain set-up as thoroughly, leaving us confused when the machine started yelling voice prompts like “Ready for learning!” and “Timer off!” — disorienting when we were just trying to figure out how to place an emergency test call. The recessed power switch on its landline unit was also difficult for our testers to reach and would make setup difficult for anyone with reduced mobility. But LifeStation did win a few points for care: it was the only company to contact us when it detected that the power for our unit had been disconnected, sending us an email that urged us to re-test our system.
Did You Know?
The subject of medical alert systems can be difficult to broach.
The famous and oft-mocked LifeAlert “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” commercial has caused some people to assume that medical alert systems are for the frail and inept. Dr. Novak, a gerontologist and researcher at Oxford University, told us, “The biggest complaint I hear from seniors is that they feel like only ‘sick’ or ‘old’ people need them.” Scott Knoll recommends that everyone involved approach the topic “with sensitivity and kindness. Remember that this device in no way suggests a lack of respect, but is a way to ensure the safety of someone who is important to the family.”
Keep in mind, as well, that medical alert systems are not just for falls: They’re potential lifesavers for people who suffer from sudden, incapacitating attacks like strokes or seizures. Dr. Novak emphasized that “Medical systems are NOT just for the frail elderly. Anyone who has a chronic disease or chronic or debilitating pain should consider purchasing a system. The relatively small cost is worth the potential peace of mind and life saving minutes if an accident were to occur.”
Medical alert systems aren’t a fix-all solution.
Though tech advances have made medical alert systems extremely convenient and useful, they’re not a replacement for individualized medical care, and their presence alone won’t guarantee good health. Dr. Novak told us, “medical systems are a tool to help individuals retain their independence as long as possible. However, they are not a failsafe and should not be used in lieu of telephones or other tools that are important for safety.” If you’re unsure whether a medical alert system is what you need, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. According to Scott Knoll, “A physician who knows the individual is best able to determine if a medical alert device is a good course to pursue. Individual personality and medical diagnoses need to be fully considered when making this determination. Oftentimes, these systems go hand-in-hand with in-home senior care.”
You'll need to return your device if you cancel your service.
When you order a medical alert device, you’re typically renting the equipment and paying for access to an emergency call center. If you cancel your service, most providers are strict about making sure every piece they shipped to you is returned in good condition. If not, they can hit you with substantial fees (Acadian On Call, for example, values its units at $250).
Medical alert providers are on the rise (and we don’t expect them to all make it).
According to the United States Census, the population age 60 and older will double between 2012 and 2050 due to the aging baby boomer population. And if 90 percent of these seniors plan on living in their own homes, it should be no surprise that the medical alert industry is getting more and more crowded. “A lot of these companies are new and there is a lot of competition, so not all of them will last,” says social worker Stephanie Erickson. “I know of several already who weren’t able to make it.” We love the little guy, but recognize that going with someone new to the game may mean scrambling for another service if it ends up out of business.
The Best Medical Alert System, Summed Up
Cellular: 600 ft
Cellular: 30 hours
Cellular: 800-1000 ft
Cellular: 32 hours
*maximum distance between wearable device and base unit