How Does a Medical Alert System Work?

How Does a Medical Alert System Work?

time icon 4 min read update icon Sept. 17, 2019


Many older adults inherently recognize the benefits of investing in a medical alert system, as it allows them to age in place longer. Unfortunately, many might know how they operate or how to maximize their capabilities.


Few would argue that the general populace of the United States is aging, with the average citizen being just over 37 years of age. To wit, there are now over 49 million persons, or 15 percent of the overall population, that are age 65 or older. What is of far greater concern for many leaders and government officials, however, is the anticipated increase in that cohort over the next three decades. 

Those nearing retirement age account for 37 percent of the population or 1.32 billion persons. That is billions with a “b”! Thus, many programs and projects are now dedicated to helping seniors age in place longer, which reduces the financial strain felt by medical facilities, healthcare systems and retirement communities. One way to achieve this goal is to invest in a medical alert system.

Medical Alert System Functionality

Medical alert systems are a traditional means to ensure an older adult has ready access to emergency first responders or a call circle should they need a medical intervention. The systems are dependable in that they rely on information transmitted by the user via either a line-of-sight radio signal or a cellular, Bluetooth or WiFi connection. 

The advent of technology has decreased average response times to mere seconds, which can mean an increased likelihood that a senior will have a much faster recovery. The range and effectiveness of systems vary based on the technology deployed, but the vast majority of the medical alert devices functional well within a home as well as near areas with strong wireless or cellular signals.


  • GPS:  The GPS, or global positioning system, option for medical alert devices has its origins in the government, which maintains 24 satellites to provide positioning and location services to those with enabled devices. For the senior that is looking to travel, but still wants to maintain contact with a medical professional, team of physicians or simply let family and friends know where they are, GPS might be the best option. The device will simply locate the nearest satellites by way of radio waves and provide an approximate location of the user and his or her most recent activity locations. This is a critical element in the event a senior finds that they are lost or in need of help.
  • Cellular and WiFi:  The use of cellular radio waves and wireless internet in and around the home operates very much like GPS, but relies on strong connections to cell phone towers, networks and the internet in order to get the user in touch with a clinician or call center. Based on the configuration of the in-home or mobile device, there may or may not be a need for a landline base, which would normally relay the suppression of the button to the call center. Having both a landline and a mobile option might be worthwhile, however, especially if one lives in a rural area.
  • Line-of-sight radio signals:  Traditional medical alert systems rely on landline technology, so when a senior pushes a button for help, there is an immediate radio wave that is transmitted to a base unit. This base unit then calls the nurse hotline, family members or friends programmed into the system.

Whether a senior elects to purchase a more traditional or high-tech medical alert system is completely up to the user, but some type of system should be a strong consideration for those older persons living alone or aging in place. Medical alert devices are fairly simple to set up and only require a monthly subscription so as to maintain access to the call center or call circle in use by that plan. 

Older adults that want to travel can still employ the same basic principles of reaching out for help, but simply relying more on GPS and cellular radio signals versus more standard line-of-sight transmissions to a base unit in the home. Just having the peace of mind that help is a moment away could instill confidence in an older adult and help them recapture their sense of independence, dignity and freedom.

Kate Papenberg - Senior Advisor

Kate is senior researcher with Grandfolk® providing in-depth product and service reviews to empower senior buying decisions.