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Buyer’s Guide: Medical Alert Systems for Seniors

Updated March 2020

The facts are clear: more than one-quarter of older adults will fall each year, and less than half of them will tell their doctors, according to the CDC’s fall data center. And falling once doubles your chances of falling again1.

That’s why reducing the likelihood of additional injury and loss of independence is a key consideration for older Americans and family caregivers. To that end, many people purchase medical alert systems with automatic fall detection technology to provide fast access to the help they need after a fall.

Here are five factors to consider when choosing a medical alert system with automatic fall detection:

1. Accuracy

Fall detection devices only help us if we use them, yet a lot of people stop using them because they misread common activities as falls and trigger an alarm, according to Jon Pynoos, PhD, of the University of Southern California Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. These false positives cause disruption, distraction, and embarrassment for users.

Look for: Devices that combine multiple advanced technologies like barometric sensors, accelerometers, and algorithms to support detection sensitivity levels of 95% or higher.

2. Water Resistance

Since more than one-third (35.7%) of home-based fall injuries occur in wet zones2 like bathrooms, taking off pendants or wristbands to shower or bathe makes us less safe.

Look for: Waterproof devices that can be worn all the time, no matter where you are or what you’re doing.

3. Reliability

What’s the point of having a medical alert system if it doesn’t perform when you need it to? Devices and systems with a lot of downtime (time unavailable or not working) put health and well-being at risk.

Look for: Fall detection systems with a high percentage of uptime — the closer to 100%, the better. That includes long battery life (18 months+) and multiple call centers that are prepared to stay online even during power outages and bad weather.

4. Qualified Call & Response Centers

Every second counts after a fall. The longer you are on the floor, the more at-risk you are for serious complications. Additionally, real-time assessment of the scene may help determine the cause of the fall, according Teresa McCarthy MD, MS, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Department of Family Practice and Community Health. That’s critical to getting you the assistance you need, like EMS or a quick call to your doctor or caregiver.

Look for: Response center staff trained in stress management and emergency response.

5. Aesthetics

Let’s be honest — nobody wants to wear a cumbersome device, especially if they feel it signals frailty or aging.

Look for: Fall detection wearables with a pleasing form factor that’s easily worn under clothing if desired.

Automatic Fall Detection Glossary

As you research medical alert devices with automatic fall detection technology, don’t let the technical talk intimidate you! This glossary of terms explains the technology that powers Philips Lifeline products.

Accelerometer: An accelerometer measures the force of acceleration and speed of movement with a simple equation: Velocity divided by time. Accelerometers are found in automatic fall detection devices as well as other everyday items, like mobile phones and game devices.

Barometer: We’re used to hearing about barometer readings during weather reports, but they’re also helpful indicators of a fall. These sensors measure changes in atmospheric pressure that indicate a change of altitude. Research shows that adding barometric pressure to accelerometer data increases fall-detection accuracy to 96.9%, sensitivity to 97.5%, and specificity to 96.5%.

Algorithm: In medical devices like Philips Lifeline with AutoAlert, an algorithm is a set of steps designed to gather and analyze data from the device’s accelerometer and barometer. Combining and evaluating this data in real time enables faster and more accurate detection. And since this equation is programmed directly into the device, evaluation occurs almost immediately.

Use this information to feel more confident about choosing a medical alert system with automatic fall detection and staying safe and active.

Don’t disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking it, because of what you read here. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional consultation, diagnosis or treatment; it is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied. Always consult a healthcare provider if you have specific questions about any medical matter, and seek professional attention immediately if you think you or someone in your care may be suffering from a healthcare condition.

1  https://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/falls/adultfalls.html

2  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3591732/

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