Medical IDs vs. Medical Alert Systems – And Why You Might Need Both

Being a caregiver for a loved one with a medical condition is a constant juggling act of responsibilities to manage your life and theirs. Throw in kids and a full-time career, and you’re probably in a perpetual state of exhaustion and worry. So how do you put your mind at ease? How do you help your loved one stay healthy and independent while still keeping them safe and protected?

Some useful tools for your caregiver’s toolkit are a medical ID and a medical alert system. Both can help those you care for live their best lives, while giving everyone a measure of peace of mind.

Medical IDs and medical alert systems are both wearable devices, but with distinct differences. Both help your loved one in an accident or medical emergency, in different ways. And sometimes, both together can provide an extra layer of safety and security for your loved one and you as a caregiver.

A medical ID is often a piece of jewelry like a bracelet or necklace engraved with important medical information. First responders are trained to look for medical IDs to learn of a patient's medical condition and any special needs. Medical IDs help the wearer get better, faster care in an emergency by speeding the time to diagnosis and treatment.

A medical alert system is a wearable device with a button that when activated, summons help in an emergency. Depending on how you set up your contact list, that help could come from a caregiver, neighbor, or first responders. Medical alert systems are often used by seniors who live alone, or people at risk for falling. 

People often think medical IDs and medical alert systems are the same thing. They're not. They both provide help in an emergency, but in different ways. Many people also think they have to choose one or the other. They don't! Medical IDs and medical alert systems actually complement each other very well.   

That’s why we took a deep dive into their differences, benefits, and and why both are equally important to a caregiver as well as the wearer. 

What is a Medical ID?

A medical ID is usually something wearable, such as a bracelet, necklace, or shoe tag that’s personalized with potentially lifesaving information. The ID is engraved with information like medical conditions, drug and other allergies, and prescribed medications.

With MedicAlert IDs, you can also have a comprehensive online health record with emergency contact lists, which MedicAlert relays to first responders in an emergency. Since there’s only a few lines of engraving available with most IDs, MedicAlert securely stores all your other health information so it’s ready when you need it.

When you combine the medical ID with a MedicAlert protection plan, the benefits MedicAlert offers  go above and beyond any other medical ID company to ensure your protection and safety.

In addition to the personal health record, we have emergency response specialists standing by 24/7 to help first responders get all the information they need to treat you. Our specialists reach out to your emergency contacts so they can be with you in your moment of crisis. And we stay in touch until the emergency is resolved.

Who should wear a Medical ID?

People with pre-existing or chronic medical conditions, impairments, or allergies wear medical IDs to alert first responders and medical professionals to their conditions in an emergency – especially if they are unable to speak for themselves. Some common emergency procedures and medications can have a detrimental or even fatal effect, depending on the patient’s pre-existing condition.

A medical ID is an excellent precaution for people with cardiac or pulmonary problems, diabetes, blood disorders, implanted medical devices, or are transplant or cancer patients. If you are insulin-dependent, take blood thinners or immunosuppressants, that’s vital information for first responders to know. For people with memory and cognitive impairments like Alzheimer’s or autism, a medical ID is a vital safety device in the event of a wandering incident.

Why are Medical IDs important?

How tragic would it be if the emergency medical treatment that is supposed to help you, hurt you instead? Pre-existing medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart conditions, implanted medical devices, hemophilia or allergies can inadvertently make some emergency measures do more harm than good. Certain emergency treatments have adverse effects for those on certain medications. And if you or someone you love becomes incapacitated and unable to speak to responders in an emergency, who will tell them about your conditions or unique medical needs? 

A medical ID can, and that’s why it’s so important to have an easily recognizable medical ID that gives emergency medical personnel an understanding of your medical history. That information will help them treat you as quickly and effectively as possible, and avoid possible negative outcomes.

MedicAlert Foundation created the original medical ID bracelet over 65 years ago, basically introducing the product category. Our symbol – the Staff of Asclepius — is the most easily recognized among all types of emergency ID bracelets and necklaces. As the creators of the very first, original medical ID, MedicAlert is so well-known and trusted that first responders, law enforcement officers, and other emergency personnel are thoroughly trained to look for the IDs, and on how to use the critical information they impart.

What is the difference between a Medical ID and a Medical Alert System?

Medical IDs contain vital medical information for emergencies. An ID signals to first responders that you have a medical condition that needs attention. They are worn by anyone who has a chronic or life-threatening medical condition, or other circumstances that require special medical care.

A wearable medical ID helps communicate your important medical information, especially if you can’t speak for yourself. When emergency personnel know your medical history, it speeds time to diagnosis and treatment. If you are unconscious, or unable to speak, your ID bracelet will be your voice. 

MedicAlert is different than other medical ID companies, because MedicAlert IDs are paired with a protection plan that enables you to store all the medical information that doesn’t fit on your ID. Many people have multiple medical conditions and take multiple medications. With MedicAlert, you can store all that important health information – and much more – in a digital health profile that you control. First responders know to contact MedicAlert’s 24/7 emergency response specialists for your full details.

Medical alert systems are sometimes referred to as Personal Emergency Response Systems, or PERS. These are also wearable devices, usually a pendant or watch, that have a button for you to summon assistance. They are often used by seniors who live alone, or anyone at risk of falling.

Pushing a button on the device connects to the PERS company’s call center, who can then dispatch the help you need depending on the situation. You decide who should be called first – family, a neighbor, or emergency personnel. 

In short, the difference is this:

  • A medical alert system allows you to quickly summon help.
  • Once help arrives, a medical ID gives emergency personnel the information they need to provide fast and accurate treatment. 

How do medical alert systems work?

A person using a Personal Emergency Response System (PERS) wears a device with a button that he or she can push if they are in a situation that requires urgent attention, such as an accident, fall, or medical emergency. Typically, the button connects directly to the emergency alert service, who assess the situation and contact the right resources to help the person in need.

In addition to the emergency alert button used to activate the system, other common features on PERS devices include wireless technology for service anywhere you go, and GPS tracking so emergency responders can pinpoint your location. Many PERS systems offer “automatic fall detection,” described in more detail below. If an incident occurs, they will also reach out to family members or caregivers who have been designated as emergency contacts.

Why would someone need a medical alert system?

Medical alert systems are helpful in any situation where immediate emergency help may needed. They are especially useful for people at high risk, such as senior citizens and other adults with health problems who live alone, to get immediate help when needed.

Typical scenarios range from minor injuries, such as accidentally cutting yourself with a knife while cooking. They are also used for more serious situations such as a stroke or heart attack, or becoming disoriented from Alzheimer’s or dementia.

One of the most common uses for medical alert technology is for slipping or falling. Unfortunately, falls are the most frequent danger for seniors who are “aging in place” at home. Many PERS systems come equipped with specialized fall detection technology that can detect when a fall is happening or has just happened, and automatically activate the alert function on the device.

How do Medical IDs and Medical Alert Systems complement each other?

As described above, medical IDs and medical alert systems both provide help in an emergency, but in different ways.

Medical alert systems =

  • Wearable devices with a button to push for assistance
  • Provide a way to quickly summon help in an emergency
  • Good for seniors living alone or anyone who is at risk of falling

Medical IDs = 

  • Wearable IDs such as bracelets or necklaces signal to emergency personnel that you have a medical condition or other circumstance that needs special medical attention
  • Communicate your most vital medical information in an emergency, especially when you can’t speak for yourself.
  • Provide first responders with the detailed medical info they need to provide safe, fast and accurate care

Medical alert systems + medical ID = safety and peace of mind

  • End to end protection for seniors in an emergency
  • Through PERS, help arrives on the scene quickly,
  • First responders use MedicAlert to obtain the patient’s medical history so that when seconds matter, they quickly diagnose and treat the individual, leading to better emergency outcomes.

The beauty of a PERS/medical ID combination is that once the alert system brings emergency personnel to the scene of an emergency, they can immediately access the patient’s most updated health history to inform their treatment plan. 

The bottom line is that both options are valuable, and can be even more powerful when used together to protect you. So you don’t necessarily need to choose between one or the other. For many people, the combination of medical alert system paired with a medical ID will provide optimal protection for all the unexpected things life throws at you.