Providing Seniors the Digital Health Community They Want

Samir Damani, MD
Providing Seniors the Digital Health Community They Want

There’s a myth that seniors are not joining the digital world. While it’s true they may not be adopting these technologies as rapidly as younger generations, seniors are playing an expanding role in the digital community. They are purchasing smartphones, signing up for broadband, and yes, even embracing social media.

Seniors are particularly eager to use this technology to improve their health. This was underscored in a recent Accenture survey of more than 10,000 seniors’ attitudes towards digital healthcare. Reading the results, I was struck by how deeply seniors want to embrace online tools to manage their own care.

  • 67% of seniors want healthcare access from their homes
  • 60% are amenable to wearing digital monitoring devices
  • 60% use online communities to confirm their doctors’ recommendations
  • 1/3 want access to a patient navigator to help them manage their health
  • 20% want virtual access to their physicians

What is the underlying motivation driving these numbers? Seniors want to leverage technology to create community. They want to adopt digital health technologies for the same reason they – and billions of others – have taken to Facebook and other social media.

Despite an intrinsic motivation, there is a problem, however. While seniors want access, they are frustrated that the medical community has not responded to their needs. In the survey, 66% felt that current technology is inadequate to provide the care they want.

That is no surprise. Payers are just now waking up to the importance of remote access. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services only recently changed their reimbursement policies to pay physicians for non-face-to-face care.

However, it’s important that we not miss the central message about seniors wanting community. Yes, electronic health records (EHRs), digital blood pressure monitors and exercise trackers are important components, but they lack the human element seniors’ desire. The numbers on health navigators and virtual physician access paint a clearer picture – seniors want to interact with actual people.

This is a key aspect of the technology issue, and one we cannot ignore or discount. Providing information to seniors, or anyone, is really the easy part. What makes data valuable is its interpretation and, ultimately, its guidance. And for that we need people. We need community.

Think of it on the ground level. If a senior gains weight, or their blood pressure goes up or some other measurement fluctuates, how should they react? Should they take action, and if so, what kind? Sophisticated as it may be, a digital scale will not answer that question. An app can help, but it can’t really provide the personalized information patients need.

That’s where the medical community needs to provide navigators and virtual visits to help seniors convert raw data into actionable information. We can’t do this piecemeal; we need to take an all-hands-on-deck approach. Today, most practices simply don’t have the operational infrastructure to engage seniors on this level. It’s not that they don’t want to; they simply can’t. Payers, hospitals, Accountable Care Organizations, businesses and other stakeholders now have an opportunity to rebuild the healthcare system, taking advantage of our digital strengths and human knowledge.

The time to do this was yesterday. By 2025, there will be more than 100 million seniors on Medicare. Digital technologies backed by a system of physician extenders is the best, and possibly the only, way we can manage this influx. Even better, by creating a community to help seniors manage their own care, we can improve outcomes, lower costs and reinvigorate the American healthcare system.

This post originally appeared on The Health Leadership Forum.