GPS Medical Alert Systems Review
Why Use a GPS Medical Alert System?
The top performers in our review are GreatCall, the Gold Award winner; LifeBeacon, the Silver Award winner; and MedicalAlert360.com, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing an alert system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 products.
You've probably seen commercials for LifeAlert, a well-known medical alert system. The commercials haven't changed much in the last 20 or more years – an elderly lady has fallen in the kitchen or down a flight of stairs or in the bathroom. She screams out, "Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!" But no one can hear her. In each of these commercials, the lady has fallen within the confines of her home. The commercials then introduce the medical alert system. Now, when she falls, she can get help. But what if she fell outside while she was walking around the block or enjoying a stroll at the park?
According to an analysis on falls among older persons published by AARP, only 55 percent of elderly falls occur within the home, with about 23 percent of falls occurring outside but near the home and 22 percent of falls occurring away from home. The data suggests that an at-home medical alert system may not be enough for most people, especially if you are active and independent. A GPS medical alert system allows you to maintain independence within and outside your home.
When you experience a medical emergency, whether it's a fall or something more serious like a heart attack or stroke, the response time for emergency personnel is critical. According to the Center for Disease Control, falls are the leading cause of death and morbidity among the elderly. People who get help quickly after experiencing a fall have an 80 percent chance of survival with a chance of returning to independent living. People who don't receive help quickly have a high chance of falling again within the next year.
A quick response increases your survival rate and minimizes the physical and mental injuries you’re likely to incur, which directly influences the quality of life you're able to enjoy afterwards. Mobile medical alert systems provide this safety net wherever you go.
Maintain Independence Both Inside & Outside Your Home
Standard medical alert systems are designed for the home. You have a base unit that connects to your phone line. The base unit communicates with an emergency pendant that you wear. Some pendants are worn as bracelets. Some are worn as lanyards. When you experience a fall or a similar emergency, you press a button on the pendant, which sends a signal to the base unit to call the medical alert system's monitoring center. Through a highly sensitive microphone, you're able to communicate with the monitoring center.
However, the range of these base units is limited. Some have a tested range of over 2,000 feet; most have a range that's less than 1,000 feet. The range allows you to move around your property freely, but you lose the safety net if you walk down the street.
A GPS (Global Positioning System) medical alert system is designed for people who aren't homebound. Since these devices are connected to a cellular network, you can go virtually anywhere where there is a wireless signal. You can walk around the block, play a round of golf, feed ducks at the park with the confidence that if you need help, you'll get it.
Medical Alert Systems with GPS: How It Works
As mentioned, mobile medical alert systems start with a device that connects to a wireless cellular network. In a very literal way, the GPS emergency response device is a simple cell phone with a two-way line to one phone number.
Since it's connected to a cellular network, emergency responders use the cellular signal to determine your location, usually within a few meters. Since the technology relies on a cell signal, GPS medical alert systems aren't true GPS devices, which rely on satellites orbiting the earth and don't require a cellular signal.
As with standard medical alert systems, there are three simple steps to the mobile emergency response process – pressing the emergency button, communicating with the monitoring center and waiting for help to arrive.
Step 1: Press the Emergency Button
As soon as you realize that you need help, you press a button on the mobile emergency response device and this activates a call to the service's monitoring center. As such, it's important that you wear the device at all times. Obviously, you can't press the button if it's not on you when you need help. Some services provide devices with fall detection, either as an upgrade or as an included feature. These devices can call the monitoring center if you've fallen and are unable to press the button.
Step 2: Communicate with the Monitoring Center
After pressing the emergency response button, an operator from the monitoring center will talk to you to ascertain the specifics of the situation. Each service is staffed with a call center of emergency responders trained similarly to 911 operators. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, they can notify your emergency contacts to check on you or they can call your local emergency personnel. If you're unable to respond, the operator automatically contacts your local 911.
Step 3: Wait for Help
The final step is simply waiting for help to arrive. In most cases, if you request, the service's monitoring center operator stays on the line with you until help arrives.
Choosing the Best GPS Medical Alert System
Mobile medical alert systems are relatively simple devices with very few features. This is good. You don't want a complicated device to fumble over when you're in the midst of an emergency. Still, the delineating factor in these devices is signal reliability.
Most services have deals with T-Mobile or AT&T, but the best GPS medical alert system in our review is on the Verizon Wireless network. Since each network differs on coverage depending on where you live, you should consider which cellular network has the best coverage in your area.
The GPS medical alert device should, at the very least, be water resistant. You shouldn't have to worry about the device when it starts raining. You should also be able to wear the device in the shower, which is where a high percentage of elderly falls occur. In addition, the device needs to have a battery life of at least 24 hours. You should never have to worry about recharging your device in the evening.
Where GPS medical alert systems can get complicated, though, is with the monitoring services. First, every medical alert system should have a monitoring center that's open all the time. Emergencies don't occur on schedule. Second, you should never pay extra for 24/7 service. Third, the best medical alert systems with GPS also come with a caregiver app with myriad features to help your family or loved ones keep track of you.
Mobile Medical Alert Systems: How to Wear the Device
Most GPS medical alert systems clip to your belt like a cell phone. You can also keep it in your pocket or purse. However, comfort is a key consideration. If you don't feel comfortable wearing the GPS emergency response device, you're less likely to wear it. Below are the types of options that are available:
GPS Wristbands & Bracelets
A few of the devices, like the LifeBeacon, are worn on the wrist like a watch. This is ideal for people who are comfortable with wristwatches and bracelets. One minor downside to a wristband or bracelet device is that it requires the other arm to activate it – if you fall and injure the opposite arm or are incapacitated, it can be difficult or impossible to press the emergency button.
GPS Medical Device with Emergency Pendant
Several medical alert systems with GPS feature a base unit with a separate emergency pendant. The base unit is the device that connects to the cellular network. It's also the device that provides two-way communication with the monitoring center. You can take the base unit wherever you go, just as you would a regular phone. The emergency pendant allows you to roam from the base unit. The pendant communicates with the GPS unit through wireless radio technology. Since it's small, about the size of a quarter, you can wear it discreetly on a bracelet or a necklace.
The downside is the lack of communication. Most of the emergency pendants that come with the GPS medical alert systems have a range of about 350 feet from the base unit. Since you can't communicate with the emergency response operator through the pendant, you won't be able to communicate the severity of the situation unless you're within vocal range of the base unit.
Cellphones vs. Medical Alert Systems with GPS
Since a mobile medical alert system is little more than a simple cell phone that connects you to an emergency response call center, you're probably asking yourself why you should use a GPS medical alert device instead of your smartphone. This is a valid question – if you're comfortable using a cell phone, then why bother?
We certainly no longer live in a society where senior citizens are ignorant to technology. With your cell phone, you can call friends or family for help, and you're perfectly capable of calling 911 on your own. Plus, cell phones have the same mobile-tracking technology, so you'd be able to get help even if you can't describe where you're at. These are all valid reasons for passing on a medical alert system with GPS.
However, these services provide some advantages that you may not have considered. Below are the main reasons why it's a good idea to get a GPS medical alert system instead of relying on your cellphone:
When you're in an emergency situation, you're likely to be panicked. You're desperate for help and in a lot of pain. You might be confused and disoriented. The last thing you want to do is deal with a complicated phone that requires multiple steps just to make a call. With a GPS medical alert device, you just press a button. And with some devices that have fall detection, you don't even have to do that. You should never underestimate the value of simplicity in a survival situation.
Always On You
Most senior citizens don't carry their phones with them at all times, especially at home. You leave your phone on the counter or a table. You forget it in the car when you go to the park. Medical alert systems with GPS are designed to be worn at all times. While this doesn't guarantee that you will wear it, with belt-clips, bracelets, and lanyard necklaces, it's easier to keep the device on you at all times.
Trained Emergency Response Operators
If you've fallen and need help getting back up, you might not want to call 911, which is understandable. Instead, you call a family member, a neighbor or a friend. However, these people are likely to be unprepared with handling emergency situations. They might panic, which could exacerbate your situation. In addition, they aren't trained to evaluate whether or not you need an ambulance or not.
When you activate a GPS emergency response device, you're connected with an operator who has the necessary training to stay calm throughout the call. The operator knows how to evaluate your situation to gauge whether you need an ambulance or not.
If the situation is not an emergency, they can ask your emergency contacts to check on you, briefing them on the situation in a way that doesn't cause panic. You should never underestimate the value of having a calm presence to get you help.
Lack of Response
If you're experiencing a medical emergency that has rendered you unable to speak, then using your phone to call for help is useless, even when calling 911. If you call a family member, but you can't say anything, they might dismiss the call as an accidental pocket dial. The operators at your local 911 deal with a wide range of emergency calls. If you're unable to respond, they'll eventually track your call and send a police officer to check on you, but this process of deduction can eat up valuable minutes. They won't know it's a medical emergency until they've found you.
With a GPS medical alert system, if you're unable to communicate, the operator automatically assumes that you're in need of medical help and contacts your local emergency personnel with your GPS coordinates. The response time is much faster.
GPS Medical Alert Systems: What We Tested, What We Found
If the technology was truly based on a GPS, then signal strength and reliability wouldn't matter. You'd be able to venture into the deepest regions of the backcountry and you'd still be able to alert people to your emergency. But since mobile medical response devices rely on a cellular network, signal strength and reliability is the most important aspect of performance.
You can't get help if the device can't get a signal. Battery performance is also a concern, though minor. While a long battery life isn't absolutely necessary, because you're likely to recharge the device every night regardless of the optimal battery life, we still tested the battery effectiveness.
To test both the range and signal strength of the hardware's technology, we tested each unit for signal strength and coverage. We used the call button on each device to place calls to the companies' monitoring centers while in different locations, each chosen for its varying level of cellular service. For example, one location we tested devices in was in a small neighborhood built within the middle of a narrow canyon where cellular service on cellphones is generally weak.
Depending on where you live, cellular coverage may be thin, which limits the areas where you can call for help if an emergency arises, so you'll want to fully test any hardware in every area you might travel through during your day.
All GPS medical alert companies use a cellular company to transmit calls from the GPS unit; usage of these companies' networks is included in the monthly subscription fee. You can ask the GPS medical alert service which cellular service it uses so you can check if these cellular providers service your area.
The best medical alert devices with GPS in our review achieved perfect scores in our tests. Specifically, these devices never dropped a signal at any point, even in areas where the cellular signal was known to be weak. Other mobile medical alert devices received lower scores because of dropped the signal too often.
Unlike a cellphone, you won't use your medical alert device routinely. In the best scenario, you won't ever need to use it. As such, the standby battery life is an important specification because it tells you how long the device can go between charges.
However, manufacturers aren't always accurate with the listed specifications. As such, we performed a simple battery test to see how long the device's battery lasted on a full charge. We scored the various devices according to whether or not they met the listed specifications and whether the battery lasted more than 24 hours. Since most people recharge their devices at night when they're not using it, we decided that it was critical for each device to have a battery life of at least one day.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison through retail purchase. The services had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
What Else is Important in Selecting a GPS Medical Alert System?
Since the GPS medical alert system will be with you or your loved one 24/7, you need equipment, and its matching service, that can get assistance to you wherever and whenever you need it. Both the hardware and the people and company behind it are important, and you specifically want to consider the following features:
In many cases, when you fall, you're unable to push the emergency-response button. You might be in too much pain. You might have experienced a stroke, a heart attack or some other medical emergency that has left you unresponsive. In these cases, a GPS medical alert device with fall detection is an important consideration.
These devices are able to determine when you've experienced a fall and can automatically contact the monitoring center without requiring you to press any buttons. In most cases, fall detection requires an upgrade and isn't included in the base unit.
You can also check out our review of medical alert services with fall detection for more information about how this technology works.
Caregiver App & Text Message Alerts
Some medical alert services provide a caregiver app with your account. These apps have several features designed to help your loved ones or a caregiver watch over you. They can send reminders to take medications or notify you when your battery is low. The apps can also alert your caretakers when you've roamed outside of a designated area – though this is generally used for seniors with mild dementia issues.
Contracts & Fees
Some companies charge upfront for the equipment cost; after the initial charge, the unit belongs to you and all you have to pay afterwards is the monthly fee. However, some companies include an equipment rental fee with the monthly subscription cost, in case you think you only need the unit temporarily and don't want to purchase it outright.
Other fees to be aware of are shipping fees (for getting the unit) as well as activation and early-termination fees. With companies that charge an activation fee, you should always ask if they will waive the fee. Many companies offer month-by-month payment plans, so you don't have to worry about cancellation fees, but it varies between companies.
Help & Support
Although you typically have direct access to company representatives with many of the systems, sometimes you may need help troubleshooting hardware or software. Companies should offer ways to contact them through phone or email. You should also look for services that offer their user manuals and other reference documents online, in case you lose your documentation.
GPS Medical Alert Systems: Our Verdict & Recommendations
The best medical alert system with GPS in our review is GreatCall, which received the Top Ten Reviews Gold Award. Not only does this service receive a perfect 100 percent for both the usage-effectiveness and battery-effectiveness tests, but it comes with fall detection and the cost is the lowest in our review. The Silver Award winner, LifeBeacon, also received perfect scores in our tests, but you have to pay extra for a water-resistant device. MedicalAlert360.com received our Bronze Award for scoring 100 percent in our usage-effectiveness tests and a 90 percent in the battery-effectiveness tests.
Mobile Guardian is another mobile medical alert system worth mentioning. This service also scored a 100 percent in our usage-effectiveness tests and a 90 percent in our battery-effectiveness tests. While it lacks many of the monitoring features we looked for, like a caregiver app and text message alerts, the device is among the easiest and simplest to use.
With a GPS medical alert system, you can go wherever you want with the confidence that you'll receive help when you need it. It's like an at-home medical alert system with the mobility of a cellphone, allowing you to maintain your quality of life and independence without changing your daily routine. For more information, read our articles about medical alert systems and other related senior care topics.