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Can Medical Alert System Detect Falls?

A medical alert system is typically a wearable device used to alert emergency responders and emergency contacts if there is a medical event, such as a fall or significant change in health metrics. A medical alert system’s goal is to bridge the gap for seniors to age in place by enabling 24/7 monitoring without the need for a caregiver to always be present and intervene in the event of a medical event. This article discusses how medical systems can detect falls and the benefits of using this technology for seniors and their caregivers.

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What is fall detection technology?

Fall detection technology is a wearable device that can detect falls through advanced sensors calibrated precisely for rapid downward movements. According to BMC Public Health, this wearable technology will include an accelerometer and algorithm with several intricate sensors to detect motion consistent with falls.

The sensors are meant to be worn on the user's body. If a fall is detected, it will trigger an alert (e.g., phone call and/or text message) to an emergency contact and emergency services to initiate medical attention. These sensors are sophisticated by design and can detect movements that differ from everyday movements; however, false positives can happen, and it is recommended to test your device monthly.

How do fall detection systems work?

Fall detection systems work through advanced sensors called accelerometers, which are calibrated precisely for rapid downward movements. The accelerometer measures speed, distance, and direction consistent with falls and can differentiate between everyday movements.

If a fall detection system is connected to a GPS, it will send a signal to a call center for immediate response services. If it is not, an audible alarm will trigger to alert anyone in the vicinity for a response. For optimal use, fall detection devices are to be worn on the senior in the correct location for the model purchased.

Wearing a fall detection device

The most common way to wear a device will be around the neck or wrist. Since this device is meant to be worn every day, it should be aesthetically pleasing to the senior, lightweight, and, in most cases, recommended to be waterproof. In a study by JMIR Mhealth and Uhealth, participants across 20 different studies could identify their preferred device features and dislikes.

The device must be worn correctly every day for it to work. Most devices around the neck require the senior to put them over their head like a necklace, but wearing them at the sternum level is optimal for the most accurate readings.

If a wrist device is chosen, it should be comfortable, such as wearing a watch. It is important to note that if a wrist device is worn, the band should be frequently checked to ensure it isn't too tight since swelling can occur in the upper extremities throughout the day. It also should be noted that the senior needs to be confident taking a wrist device on and off independently and that the strap mechanism isn't too intricate (e.g., buckle and loop or a button clasp).

When researching any system, it is important to make sure that it is comfortable for the user, offers the correct support services in your region, and fits into your budget. Some systems charge a one-time fee, while others can be a monthly service.

Fall detection emergency response

The most reliable fall-detecting devices are dedicated to monitoring falls and connected to a monitoring center. These devices have a higher sensitivity toward movements and, in return, a higher accuracy rate for detecting falls. This doesn't discount the use of smartwatches; however, the technology in smartwatches is still evolving to be more efficient for seniors and has a lot of setbacks. These setbacks include shorter battery life, small screens making it challenging to use, the need to be set up correctly through a "settings" feature either online or through a smartphone application, and most importantly, it isn't connected with a dedicated monitoring service but rather just the user's cellular provider.

When a fall is detected, the device will set off an alarm. The idea is that if the senior is okay, they can safely turn off the alarm. If the senior is not okay or even unconscious, emergency services will be contacted to include a notification sent to a family member, caregiver, or listed emergency contact.

Turning off the alarm can be done using different methods, such as pressing an actual button or verbally communicating. Some fall-detection devices connected to a monitoring service have internal speakers, allowing for two-way communication, such as a phone. This option should be considered for seniors with low vision and decreased hand dexterity.

Benefits of wearing a fall detection device

The benefit of wearing a fall detection device is that it allows seniors to age safely. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "One out of 10 falls results in an injury that causes the older adult to restrict their activities for a day or more or to seek attention from the healthcare system." Consequently, after the first fall, a senior is more likely to fall again, and most senior-related falls result in hip fractures and/or a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Falls can't always be prevented, but by adding a fall detection device, seniors can have peace of mind that if they do fall, they have a system for immediate medical care. This is especially true for seniors who want to continue living independently.

Another benefit of wearing a fall detection device is the medical response time. Most fall detection devices have response times under 30 seconds, allowing immediate emergency response and dispatch if the senior is unresponsive or badly injured. It is not uncommon for hospitals to have seniors admitted who were found hours to even a day later after a fall by a neighbor, family member, caregiver, or even a stranger. This can severely impact the senior's ability to recover from a fall, as secondary medical conditions can also occur with delayed responses.

Falls aren't always mechanical but sometimes occur due to a medical event. Medical events such as a stroke, heart attack, or low blood pressure can cause a senior to fall, and medical response time is even more crucial and can be the key factor in saving their life.

Having a fall detection device also gives the family of a senior peace of mind and reduces caregiver burden. Most devices offer monitoring not only to the service center but also to the family or caregivers. It is not uncommon for seniors to live in areas without family nearby, which offers another level of security for seniors and their family members. Most devices also provide GPS tracking, giving those invested in the senior's well-being access without being invasive in their daily life.

Additional considerations

It is essential to research the best system that meets the needs of seniors. Several different companies offer packages and monthly services with additional add-on features. If a fall detection system is being considered, it is also recommended that you speak with your primary care physician and inquire about their recommendations for your region. They may offer insight into how their other patients have liked or disliked certain companies or products.

As with all technology, there are limitations to specific systems, and even though they should be thoroughly tested, make sure a reputable brand with published research is considered. This can be key to knowing the device accuracy percentage and if the company continues to make improvements as technology advances. You should also speak with the company you are considering, ask for a demonstration to see how user-friendly the device is, and ask if they offer monthly testing. Smart devices such as a watch would be a one-time purchase and therefore limited in continued support for the product.

Medicare won't cover fall detection devices. However, some Medicare Advantage plans may help subsidize costs associated with a medical alert system. Under Medicaid, medical alert systems are listed as personal emergency response services (PERS) and may be covered; however, this varies from state to state. Other entities to assist with financial coverage would be the Association of Retired Persons (AARP) or the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA).

In conclusion, fall detection devices are sensitive enough to use sensors and an accelerometer to accurately detect falls. As long as these systems are utilized correctly, they can offer seniors and their caregivers peace of mind for a safe and maintaining independence. Falls can't always be avo; however, ever having a plan in place can be the difference between a full recovery and lifelong severe injury or even death.

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