Medical Alert systems, also known as Personal Emergency Response Systems, have been around since the early 1980s. The medical alert industry estimates that about 1.8 million Americans use these services. A subscriber to a medical alert service typically has a small base station plugged into the telephone line in their home which can automatically dial to a monitoring center. An alarm call can be initiated on the base station by pressing its help button or by pressing the button on a pendant or wrist worn activator. The pendant or wrist band activator is actually a small radio transmitter that transmits a signal to the base station to tell it to dial.

When you subscribe to a service, you register with them the details of where you live, who they should contact if you need help, and details of any health conditions or disabilities that might affect your safety. The center will also determine who the public emergency services are in your community so that they can be summoned in an emergency.

When a call is initiated, the base station dials to the center and the call is answered by an emergency response operator. The center will have several operators to ensure that calls are answered promptly. The operator speaks with you via a headset and can also see on a computer screen the details of who you are, where you live, and who to call in an emergency. The conversation will be recorded on a voice recorder. Your base station has a loudspeaker and microphone so that you can have a conversation with the operator even if you are in a different room to the base station.

During a help call, the operator will ask you some questions to determine what type of help you require. The operator is trained to make decisions quickly and make sure that your safety and wellbeing are top priority. The operator can call your nominated responder, for instance a friend or neighbor and can call the emergency services if necessary, and will stay connected with you to provide re-assurance and support until help arrives.

After the call, the base station will automatically hang up the call. If there was an emergency, the operator can pass a message on your behalf to a family member or friend to inform them what happened and what the output is. The reason for the call and the actions taken are stored on the service's database so that the operators are aware of a subscriber's previous calls when a new call is made.

Usually you can have as many pendant activators as you need so for instance two family members can share the service if they each carry a pendant activist. You could also place an activator in a cozy place in a bathroom or garage to give extra insurance.

How are Medical Alert Systems regulated?

Safety:

Apart from the FCC regulation that applies to all radio transmitting products, many medical alert and personal emergency response products fall outside of regulation as far as user safety is concerned. Most manufacturers have their products tested and listed as compliant with the UL standard for home healthcare signaling equipment (UL1637), however some services are additionally registered with the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) because the manufacturers define their Medical Alert products as Medical Devices, for instance Tunstall's Vi and CEL products used in the Walgreens Ready Response service ( www.walgreensreadyresponse.com ).

Data Privacy:

Another important aspect of operating a service is maintaining the security of subscriber's confidential information that may be stored on the services database or discussed during calls. Some but not all providers operate a HIPAA compliant data policy. HIPAA is a federal law that provides for the protection of individually identifiable health information that is transmitted or maintained in any form or medium. The privacy rules affect the day-to-day business operations of all organizations that provide medical care and maintain personal health information. ( http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/privacy/hipaa/understanding/summary/ )

Paying for a Medical Alert Service:

In the past, a subscriber to a Medical Alert Service would very often have to purchase the equipment and enter into a long term contract for the ongoing monitoring service. These days, most services are paid for with a simple monthly payment that covers the rental of the equipment and the monitoring service and the contract can be terminated by the subscriber whenever they choose.

In the next article:

In the next article I will describe how technology has been introduced to enhance medical alert systems and create telecare solutions that have many more benefits for individuals living alone and with risks.