Will Your Medical Alert Work Well With a VoIP System?

Many medical alerts are still analog. This means such devices are designed to work well and flawlessly with a traditional telephone system. But new digital communications technologies (such as Voice over Internet Protocol and cable-based data and phone services) are fast-replacing traditional phone lines, and pretty soon, users of analog alert alarms might find themselves at risk for unreliable service. How is this so?

A little backgrounder first: a typical medical alert system has three parts: a wearable panic button (either worn on the wrist or around the neck), a base unit connected to a phone line, and constant 24/7 connection to the system provider’s response center. If some medical emergency occurs, the wearer presses the panic button, and the response center is instantly contacted through the base unit.

Quick real-time communication is therefore extremely crucial for this system to successfully protect the life of a loved one: any delay in the two-way communication between the person in distress and the response center can literally mean the difference between life and death. Here enters the “little” compatibility problem between analog alert systems and VoIP.

Now, the issue of compatibility is crucial. There are unscrupulous medical alert providers, whose devices can be categorized as “traditional” or essentially analog, that would still insist that their systems are completely “future-proof”-which means their devices could work whatever new communication system is introduced. In some instances-especially those medical alert companies that have specifically designed their systems specifically for digital communications technologies-they would be right. But in most instances, especially with the older providers, using their medical alert with the newer VoIP could be putting you at risk. This is because, like other digital communications technologies, VoIP is very much like the internet: it transmits data (including voice) in packets. This means the system spends a certain amount of time converting analog data (from your analog medical alert) into digital packets to be relayed to the person on the other end of the line (the response center). In most cases this would be fine-but the risk exists as possible delays between the two-way communication between the wearer in distress and the response center are not altogether eliminated.

So imagine having to wait a few seconds before the response center hears you. In a medical situation, especially serious ones (and you never know when something serious occurs), those few seconds are extremely important.

Make no mistake: there is a raging marketing war between the old telephone system and the newer Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and other related digital communications technologies. In fact, many telecommunication companies throw generous discounts just to win new customers and convince them to switch to using the new digital systems. What used to be the pricey option (cable systems) is becoming more and more commonplace. Pretty soon, VoIP would outrun analog, leaving many medical alert wearers (unaware of this difference) at a certain risk.

The fact of the matter is, of course, you should check with your medical alert provider if their devices are specifically designed for VoIP. Moreover, keep in mind that there is a distinct difference between “specifically designed for VoIP” and merely “upgraded for compatibility”: the latter might still be unreliable. The resident medical alert technician might seem at first “successful” in making these two systems compatible, but you never know its reliability until a real emergency occurs. And by then it might be too late.

In the recent past, when digital communications services were just emerging, people had no other choice but to discontinue their medical alert system subscription. For the most part, this was easy: the typical medical alert system provider does not tie-up their clients with long-term contracts. Most, if not all, require only monthly or quarterly renewals, so it was simply a matter of not renewing for the succeeding month. There are also certain devices that serve as a “bridge” between the analog medical alert and the digital VoIP, and such devices can cost extra. Not to mention they might not be a hundred percent efficient.

Chances are, you might already have been using the newer medical alert systems. But if you are not, you owe it to yourself (or to those elderly loved ones who use a medical alert system) to make sure that your telecommunication system and personal emergency alert device are designed to work faultlessly with each other.