Understanding how medical alarms work

Specially designed medical alert systems – also known as Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS) – have been around since the 1980s and do just that. Although they differ in design and operation, they all perform the same basic function; to summon urgent help in a crisis.

With people living longer, they are becoming increasingly popular for the reassurance they give both to the person using the system, and their loved ones. Although some people might see having a PERS system as diminishing their independence, in fact it does just the opposite. It allows vulnerable individuals to carry on living with a high degree of independence, but also confident that help is only a button push away if needed.

So just what are medical alarms, and how do they work?

A medical alarm/alert is a device which is worn or carried about your body, ideally at all times. It could be on a pendant around your neck, clipped to a belt or waistband, worn on a wristband like a watch, or carried in a pocket. If you need medical help, for example, if you have a fall and find you can’t stand up, you can push the button on your device. It then transmits a signal to a base unit in your home, which in turn triggers the emergency response system you have chosen. There are two main types of system – monitored and non-monitored:

Monitored PERS: As its name suggests, a monitored system is permanently monitored by trained staff working for the company which supplied your device. Pushing the emergency button on your device will put you in voice contact with a staff member through a two-way intercom between your body-worn device and the base unit in your home, which is connected to the monitoring company.

The trained employee will quickly assess your situation, call any appropriate emergency services if necessary, and offer advice and reassurance until help arrives. Depending on your situation it may be more appropriate to call a family member, neighbour or other contact. The employee will already have their details as you supply them to the company when the system is set up, so you don’t have to worry about remembering them in an emergency.

Some monitored systems don’t need to be within range of a home base unit, but instead work like a cell phone and can be taken wherever you go. A GPS tracking component will automatically give the monitoring station your location. Some systems will also detect a fall automatically and send an alert without you needing to push the button. This is useful if you are knocked unconscious or are prone to fainting. Fully monitored systems are more expensive because of the resources needed to operate them, with users paying a monthly or annual charge.

Non-monitored PERS: These systems work in a similar way but are not permanently monitored by trained staff. Instead, when you push the button on your wearable device it prompts the base unit to begin automatically calling through a pre-programmed series of contact telephone numbers. These are contacts you have chosen and could be neighbours, nearby friends or family members, carers or emergency services.

The base unit will continue calling through your contacts until someone answers. Some systems then enable you to talk to whoever answers through your wearable device, while others will play a pre-recorded message letting them know there’s an emergency at your address – a useful feature if you’re unable to speak.

Some non-monitored systems also have extra features such as automatic fall detection. Their biggest advantage is cost. After the initial purchase of the system you don’t need to pay a monthly fee for 24/7 monitoring so there is no ongoing cost. However, with both systems, you should regularly check and recharge or change the batteries.

Other features: Some Personal Emergency Response Systems enable you to install emergency buttons in key locations around the home, in addition to your wearable device. For instance, a waterproof button could be sited in the shower, in case you fall there. Some systems also allow other technology around your home to be integrated with the base unit, such as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, intruder alarms or fall sensors. If any of these is triggered, the base unit automatically sends out an alert.

Another option on some systems is a regular ‘wellness check’ feature. It prompts the user to push a button at regular intervals (perhaps daily or several times a day) to let either the monitoring company or a pre-programmed contact know they are well. If the button isn’t pressed at the scheduled time, it will trigger a phone call to check all is well.

Before buying, work out the features you need and whether you need a monitored or non-monitored system. Shop around for the best deal – there are lots of competing suppliers and service providers, but check the customer reviews too. If you’re unsure, especially about researching online, get someone whose opinion you value and trust to help you.

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