By: Richard Caro | Posted: June 6, 2016 | Updated: April 15, 2023
We set out to find the best medical alert app for our Longevity Explorers who wanted to use their smartphone as a medical alert system. We focused on monitored medical alerts, found only three that looked promising enough to test, and did extensive, hands-on, comparison testing. One App emerged as far superior to the others.
Update 2023: The specific apps we evaluated here are no longer available, and so the details of the individual reviews are not relevant. However, we kept this page live because we think some of the thoughts and considerations are still relevant.
Think of it as archival in nature, and do not rely on any of the specific reviews.
Smartphone as Medical Alert System
We have been doing a lot of work digging into the question of “how to choose the right medical alert system“, and people frequently wonder if they can somehow use their smartphone as a personal emergency response system (our preferred name for medical alert systems), instead of going out and buying one of the traditional medical alert systems.
It turns out this is a more complex question than one might imagine, but the short answer is “Yes you can”. There are a few caveats however, and in our comparison testing we learned it makes a big difference which exact product you choose.
The general approach to turning your smartphone into a medical alert system is to acquire a special App, download it onto the smartphone, and then set the App up. Once that is all done, when an emergency happens, you navigate to the “App” on the smartphone, and press a button to summon help.
Pluses: No need for extra stuff
There are some very attractive aspects of this approach to emergencies. Assuming you are the sort of person who always has their smartphone with them, using it as your medical alert as well as your phone, camera, source of music, and more means you don’t need to go out and buy a separate medical alert pendant, and remember to carry that with you at all times.
And while a smartphone is becoming a necessary appendage of 21st Century humans, the medical alert pendants label one as “old and frail” which is not to everyone’s taste.
In addition, in our testing (more below) we found that the smartphone does a somewhat better job of knowing where you are than do some of the medical alert systems. This can be quite an important advantage.
So, in some ways it is “simpler” (for some people). And we found it was also almost always “cheaper”. And in the case of location capability, it can be “better”.
Minuses: Not as “perfect”
However, we did find quite a few offsetting negatives. In general, the smartphone is not quite as “perfect” as a special purpose medical alert system. Whether this matters or not, depends a great deal on the individual and on the exact useage scenario.
Here are some of the minuses.
- If you don’t carry your smartphone with you most of the time, this solution is not so good.
- If you like having your smartphone turned off in your pocket or purse most of the time, using a medical alert on the phone requires you to dig out the phone, turn it on, wait for it to boot up, find the App, and then press the button. This is much slower than a simple emergency response pendant, where you just push the button. And several of our Longevity Explorers felt that, in an emergency, doing all this would be too much to manage.
- Even if you have the smartphone turned on and with you at all times, you still need to navigate the lock screen (ie enter your password), then find the App and open it before you see the button to press. There are a handful of Apps that allow you to operate them from the lockscreen, and we think this is a very interesting feature. However none of those Apps made it into this Bake-off due to other limitations.
- If you want a medical alert that works when you are in the shower, the smartphone is probably not the solution. Unless you like the idea of taking the phone into the shower (in a waterproof bag).
- If you worry about summoning help when asleep, or want an alert that can go off automatically if you fall without you needing to press the button, then you need a traditional medical alert system as these features are not yet available in App form.
Assuming you decide the pluses outweigh the minues for you, then the next question is “which App?”
Monitored, Unmonitored, or Dialling 911 directly
Just as with conventional medical alert systems, the Apps come in several “flavors”. We think the big differentiation relates to who gets the call when you press the button. Broadly speaking the options are:
- a professional call center that stands by to get your call and then interacts with you, before calling emergency services (eg 911) or taking other actions (like calling your friends);
- a friend, or a series of friends in a call tree;
- a direct call to emergency services (911).
Choosing which of these is right for you requires some extra discussion, but the approach is the same as if you were selecting a conventional medical alert system. We created a pair of online workshops to help people select the right medical alert system for them, (see the Learning Module), and this is one of the topics in those workshops.
For this Medical Alert App Bake-off, we focus on “monitored medical alerts”, which are the ones most people know about, and which call a person in a call center when you press the emergency button. The category of Unmonitored Emergency Response Apps is also a very interesting one, but we are saving that for some future research.
The Candidate Alert Apps
Unlike traditional medical alert systems (there are over 50 in our database), we had a hard time finding many Apps that looked stable, were well reviewed, were made by companies that seem likely to still exist a year from now, and which came with reputable looking monitoring services (so someone answers when you press the button).
In the end we found three Apps that all looked like they should be excellent. We downloaded each and set them up and proceeded to test them. These are the three Apps we ended up including in this Bake-off.
- The Response App, from Philips Lifeline;
- The 5 Star App, from GreatCall; and the
- Mobile Alert App, from LifeFone.
We suspect there may be other good Apps, and if you know of one please add it to the comments section at the bottom of the page and we will check it out.
Further down in this article you can see links to our detailed reviews of each of these Apps, and links that take you to the companies’ sites where you can download the Apps if you wish.
Comparison Testing: The Results
Each of the three companies whose Apps we are including is a serious and well regarded player in the conventional medical alert system industry. We have tested each of their conventional medical alert systems and they are all pretty good, with some being excellent. So we had high expectations for these three Apps, and expected they would all work pretty well.
However this was definitely NOT the case.
To cut a longer story short, we liked the GreatCall 5 star App, and it performed well in all our tests. However the Philips Lifeline Response App performed extremely poorly, which was frankly shocking, considering the size and reputation of the company. The LifeFone Mobile Alert App was at least functional. But it had some major flaws and we do not recommend it.
The longer story. Reviews.
If you would like to read our detailed description of the tests we performed and what went wrong (or worked well) for each of these Apps, you can see the reviews below.
- Review of Philips Lifeline Response App;
- Review of GreatCall 5 Star App;
- Review of LifeFone Mobile Alert App.
We also included quite a bit of material about our test protocol and how we evaluated these products in Mobile Medical Alert Systems: Comparison Testing. In that analysis, we included these smartphone Apps in a side by side evaluation with conventional medical alert systems of a certain type.
Here is the take-away, if you prefer not to take the time to read the reviews in detail:
All testing was done on an iPhone. We can’t comment on the Android versions of these Apps.
The GreatCall 5Star App worked well. It opens easily, has a nice big red button to press, and when pressed it connects to the same responder as did the Splash (GreatCall’s conventional medical alert product). The GPS seems to work a bit better on the phone than on the stand alone devices, with slightly fewer errors. The biggest issue is that to get to the App, you first need to unlock your phone, navigate to the App, then open it. This is our first choice by far among these three Apps.
In contrast, we consider both the other two Apps to be unusable!! See the detailed reviews of each App for my discussion of why exactly that is the case. But the short summary is this.
- More than 50% of the time, in my testing the Phillips Lifeline Response App froze before it reached the button you need to press to summon help. (The review contains screenshots, and some statistics. This was not an isolated incident by any means.) There are some other annoying aspects of this product, such as popups that keep appearing when you don’t want them to.
- The LifeFone App works quite well when you activate it. However, instead of a big obvious button to press when you open it, it has a very tiny little icon at the bottom that is almost unreadable (by me at least). In an emergency I don’t think you would figure out what to press. You can also operate it by shaking it, which is an interesting idea. For some, this might be good. I did not like it, as I found it confusing and it easily led to an error in which either the call was triggered when it was not supposed to, or did not trigger when I wanted it to.
The final point to emphasize is price. These three Apps each have a monthly fee that covers the professional responder service. However, this fee is substantially lower than the fee for a conventional medical alert system. In the Mobile Medical Alert: Comparison Testing article (link above) we have a table with 2 year costs for these Apps, as well as for conventional medical alert systems, so you can compare them all.
- For the specific GreatCall 5 Star App that wins our bake-off for Apps, the cost as of June 2016 is $15 per month, and you can try it for a month for free.
- LifeFone’s Mobile Alert App comes with a service that costs $8 / mth ( a bit less for owners of a LifeFone conventional medical alert).
- The Philips Lifeline Response App has a $14 / mth service fee.
Conclusion: Best Monitored Medical Alert App
We wish this were a more challenging conclusion, as it would be far better if these products all worked well. However in this case there is really only one we recommend, and that is the Great Call 5 Star App.
Check out the detailed reviews for more granularity and detail.
Download links are on each review page, so you can download the Apps and try them for yourself.
- Review of Philips Lifeline Response App;
- Review of GreatCall 5 Star App;
- Review of LifeFone Mobile Alert App.
*Disclosure: The research and opinions in this article are those of the author, and may or may not reflect the official views of Tech-enhanced Life.
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