Despite the fact that adults over the age of 75 account for more than 70 percent of U.S. deaths from falls, most people in the age group have yet to adopt the potentially lifesaving technology of a medical alert device.
Depending on the device and provider, medical alert systems can detect falls, trace the user’s location, and provide call assistance, all giving peace of mind for older adults and their families. Globally, the market for medical alert devices is huge, and analysts expect it to surpass more than $17 billion by 2027.
As a follow-up on research we first conducted last year, we surveyed more than 600 Americans 75 and older on a variety of issues related to medical devices and their feelings of safety. Our findings indicate that medical device ownership has not changed overall among Americans 75 and older, but about 12 percent of people who don’t yet have these devices are strongly considering buying one.
Here are some other key findings:
- Based on population data, our analysis indicates that nearly 1.3 million Americans 75 and older could be in the market for a medical alert device in the next year or so. About 1.5 million people in the age group already have one.
- Wearable pendants are the most popular medical alert device, with about 63 percent of device owners having one.
- Standalone or fixed medical alert devices had the biggest year-over-year growth, with 18 percent of device owners having one, compared to 11 percent in 2020.
- 60 percent of device owners are not fully aware of imminent area code calling changes and how it could affect medical alert responsiveness.
Did You Know? Check Your Device
Before we dive deeper into our survey data, it’s important to note an upcoming change in many communities that may impact the effectiveness of medical alert devices. The Federal Communications Commission in July 2020 ordered the establishment of a three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
Starting July 16, 2022, calling 988 nationwide will connect a person with the suicide prevention hotline, but in many areas, 988 is used as the prefix for telephone numbers. So, in those places, beginning in October 2021, people will be required to use 10-digit numbers, including area codes, for all calls.
Area code calling has been common in many places across the U.S. for years, especially high-population-density areas like New York or San Francisco, where large amounts of phone numbers are required.
Currently, 81 area codes in 35 states allow for seven-digit dialing and also have phone numbers that start with 988.
|Affected area codes by state|
|State||Affected area codes|
|Arizona||480, 520, 928|
|California||209, 530, 562, 626, 650, 707, 925, 949, 951|
|Florida||321 (Brevard County only), 352, 561, 941|
|Illinois||309, 618, 708|
|Michigan||616, 810, 906, 989|
|Missouri||314, 417, 660, 816|
|New Jersey||856, 908|
|New Mexico||505, 575|
|New York||516, 607, 716, 845, 914|
|Texas||254, 361, 409, 806, 830, 915, 940|
|Wisconsin||262, 414, 608, 920|
Our survey found that about 60 percent of medical alert device owners were not fully aware of this change and how it would affect them. If your area code is on the list and your medical alert device is set up to make seven-digit calls, please consult your provider to have it updated.
What Medical Alert Devices Are Most Popular?
Wearable pendants continued to be the most popular type of medical alert device among owners of any type of medical alert system. The percentage of device owners having a wearable pendant climbed, though the change was slight. Still, among those who own at least one medical alert device, pendants are nearly twice as common as any other.
Wristbands and watches remained the second most popular type of medical alert device, though their usage among device owners slipped. Standalone or fixed units had the biggest climb between 2020 and 2021, with 18 percent of medical alert device owners saying they have this type of system. That helped standalone devices leapfrog past portable units in the rankings this year.
|Medical alert device owned by type, 2020 vs. 2021|
|Standalone unit or fixture||11%||18%|
Overall, women were far more likely to own any medical alert device than men. About 16 percent of women say they own at least one medical alert device compared to just nine percent of men. Among device owners, men and women have little in common when it comes to which medical alert devices are most popular.
|Medical alert device owned by type and sex|
More than two in five device owners whose systems are wearable have them on constantly, and this rate increased slightly over the past year. However, daily wear that’s not constant dropped, while occasional wearing throughout the week nearly tripled. That means while the plurality of wearable device owners constantly have them on, many device owners may be missing out on the full protection of their medical alert devices because they’re not wearing them all the time.
|Frequency of use among users of wearable devices|
|Multiple times per week||5%||13%|
|Less than weekly||23%||19%|
What Influences Purchase Decisions?
Fall risk was the factor most highly correlated with medical alert device ownership. Living arrangements, having had a previous fall, and whether participants had a caregiver were also strongly related to purchase decisions. Cost does not appear to be a huge factor in deciding to purchase a medical alert system.
Fall risk & previous falls
Falls are the leading cause of injury and death among people 75 and older. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 29,000 people in this age group died from a fall in 2019, the most recent year with available data, while millions more had a non-fatal fall.
About 68 percent of medical device owners indicated they are at a moderate or high risk for a fall compared to just 38 percent of non-owners. Combined, the 30 percentage-point difference between the two groups was the highest disparity among purchase factors.
|Fall risk level by medical device ownership status|
|Risk level||Device owners||Non-owners|
Just under half of people in our survey (48 percent) had experienced a fall in their lives, but among those who own medical alert devices, that rate was closer to two-thirds (62 percent). About 46 percent of those who don’t own a medical alert device have had a fall, but only 16 percent had a fall within the past six months, which makes a recent fall a major purchase driver.
|Percentage experiencing fall by medical device ownership status|
|Past six months||33%||16%|
|More than six months ago||29%||30%|
Living situation & caregiver status
Medical alert device owners were slightly more likely to live alone and considerably more likely to have a caregiver, whether a friend, family member, or hired provider. About one in five medical alert device owners lives in a senior care community. That compares to just four percent of those who don’t have a device.
|Living situation by medical device ownership status|
|Living situation||Device owners||Non-owners|
|Own home, alone||44%||35%|
|Own home, with at least one other person||29%||58%|
|Home of family member or friend||6%||3%|
|Senior living community||20%||4%|
Among all respondents, only 20 percent have a caregiver, and a friend or family member is the most common type, with 16 percent of people having a caregiver who is a loved one. When looking at device owners vs. non-owners, majorities of both groups lack a caregiver, but those who don’t have a medical alert device are much more likely not to have a caregiver.
|Presence of caregiver by medical device ownership status|
|Presence of caregiver||Device owners||Non-owners|
|Senior community provided||4%||1%|
Perceptions of cost & reasons for not purchasing
Cost was not strongly correlated with either purchasing or not purchasing a medical alert device. Among those without such devices, only 16 percent listed cost as the main reason why they don’t have one, while among all respondents, 42 percent had no opinion on how much medical alert devices cost.
Those who do own medical alert devices are more likely to rate them as being expensive. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since more than half of people with a medical alert device purchased it themselves, so they would certainly be more educated on costs. About 45 percent of device owners say they’re either “very expensive” or “somewhat expensive.”
|Perceived cost of medical alert device by ownership status|
|Neither expensive nor inexpensive||19%||17%|
As we mentioned, only 16 percent of those who don’t have a medical alert device say expense was a barrier for them; lack of need was the biggest reason for not purchasing a device (66 percent). Few non-owners view medical alert devices as ineffective.
|Reasons for not purchasing medical alert device|
|Lack of need||66%|
|Haven’t gotten around to it||15%|
|Need more information||12%|
|Unsure of product effectiveness||8%|
Who’s Considering Buying a Medical Alert Device?
About 14 percent of older adults told us they already own a medical device, which equates to about 1.5 million Americans. Among those who don’t have one, nearly three-quarters said they would consider purchasing one in the distant future if they need to, while about 16 percent said they never plan to get one.
|Medical alert device non-owners by future purchase plans|
|Distant future if needed||72%|
|More than year from now||7%|
|In next year||4%|
|In next six months||1%|
This means that only about 12 percent of those 75 and older expect to be purchasing a medical alert device some time in the near future, whether it’s in the next six or 12 months or more than a year from now. That equates to about 1.3 million Americans, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau population estimates.
Prices for medical alert devices vary by type and service level. But our research indicates that most people can expect to pay at least $19.95 per month. That means if everyone who seems likely to purchase a device did so, that could generate nearly $26 million per month in sales and $309 million per year as a conservative estimate.
Taking a closer look at those who are poised to buy a medical alert device, they skew female and middle income, and nearly 60 percent have had at least one previous fall. More than three in four don’t have a caregiver.
|Select demographics of potential future medical device buyers*|
|Own home, alone||37%|
|Own home, with at least one other person||50%|
|Home of family member or friend||7%|
|Previous fall experience|
|Past six months||25%|
|More than six months ago||34%|
|Fall risk rating|
|Senior community provided||3%|
* Respondents who don’t own medical alert devices who said they would purchase one more than a year from now, in the next year, or in the next six months; household income figures include only those who opted to provide that information
Two-thirds of people we surveyed said they haven’t bought a medical alert device because they don’t need one. But that view simply does not align with the risk of falls or other medical emergencies for Americans 75 and older. The time to protect yourself or your loved one is long before an emergency occurs, not after.
We surveyed more than 600 adults 75 and older on their usage and perceptions of medical alert devices. The survey was conducted in April 2021.