COVID Has Empowered A New Era in Digital Care For Seniors
The increase in the use of telehealth and remote patient monitoring tools by elderly populations during the COVID pandemic has created a unique opportunity for health technologies and solutions to transform the health and healthcare of the aging. For example, according to an article in Health Evolution entitled “Digital health making a surprising impact for older patients” prior to the pandemic only 20% of adults 65 and older had reported using a health app, and 4% of adults 65 and older had participated in a telehealth visit. However, post-pandemic, over 90% of adults 65 and older reported using virtual care for the first time, and 60% of seniors reported embracing technology during the pandemic. This is crucially important in enabling the elderly to maintain independence and age in place as approximately 85% of older adults have at least one chronic health condition, and 60% have at least two chronic conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Not only did the pandemic lead to significant improvement in the elderly population’s receptiveness to digital health solutions and adoption of digital technology to access healthcare services, but it also increased digital health solutions and investor focus on the delivery of care and support services for the elderly population. Shifting abruptly to digital health was a difficult transition as a great many seniors were separated from the support system that assisted them with navigating technology. On the positive side, the dramatic shift to telehealth forced many seniors to acquire or improve their digital skills in order to carry on with their usual healthcare activities like doctor’s appointments or ordering their medicines which were now happening with the assistance of technology.
According to the UN Report on Aging 2020, there are 727 million persons aged 65 years and over globally, and this number is projected to double by 2050.
Pre-Pandemic only 20% of adults 65 and older had used a health app, and 4% of adults 65 and older had participated in a telehealth visit.
Post-Pandemic 92% of adults 65 and older reported using virtual care for the first time during the pandemic, and 60% of seniors embraced technology more during the pandemic.
Goldman Sachs estimates that digital health technologies can reduce US healthcare costs by about $305 billion, partly through adoption among older people looking to lower their expenses.
As we age, naturally we increasingly prone to falling ill and are more susceptible to chronic illness resulting in increased spending on healthcare treatments. According to the UN Report on Aging 2020, there are 727 million persons aged 65 years and over globally, and the number is projected to double by 2050 increasing the demographic in need of care. Research has shown an association between the ability of seniors to live independently have reduced healthcare costs and lower mortality risk. Digital health technologies that offer support for the elderly to manage their healthcare and live on their own could reduce mortality risks, especially for seniors with limited support networks.. Before the pandemic, the investments and solutions for the elderly were few compared to the need for several reasons. These include limited understanding of the technology needs of the elderly, the tendency to prioritize the more tech-savvy populations, and the elderly’s preference for in-person care.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, stringent lockdown measures and the need to keep people safe from potential infection led to the separation of older populations from their families and support systems. To contain the spread of the pandemic, healthcare services were mainly accessible remotely and therefore digital health solutions and technology became an integral part of healthcare for everyone, including the elderly. While the elderly tried to navigate the new normal by adopting digital health solutions it became increasingly apparent that most of the existing solutions were not specifically designed to meet their needs including the need for solutions that address needs most often found in this population like hearing and vision loss. According to Rock health’s report, 9 in 10 Americans found it challenging to obtain, process, and understand basic information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions, and the older adults struggled more than their younger counterparts. Before the pandemic, only 20% of adults 65 and older used a health app, and 4% had used telehealth services. However, following the pandemic, a striking 92% of adults 65 and older reported using virtual care for the first time, during the pandemic, and 60% of seniors embraced technology more during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the rapid increase in the number of health-focused digital solutions, the elderly population was largely ignored. The increased adoption of digital health solutions caused by the pandemic’s disruption of healthcare delivery has forced solution vendors to rethink their assumptions and led to the design of more customized solutions targeted at meeting the needs of the elderly population. A BMC Geriatrics article (2021) classifies digital health technologies for the elderly into the following four categories:
Gerontechnology: Digital tools targeted for supporting the aged in living healthier lives.
Intelligent assistant technology that helps patients with dementia or age-related cognitive disabilities.
Digital health solutions that are designed for the general population but with features customized to serve the needs of the elderly.
Other Digital Health solutions that generate data that support the implementation of assistive functions like self-monitoring medication adherence, and calorie consumption.
In addition, the forced adoption of technology that occurred during the pandemic has helped many older adults overcome their reluctance to use digital health particularly for follow-up and routine visits, though many still prefer in-person care for diagnostic care and specialized treatments. A study conducted in Switzerland aimed at recording digitization for the elderly saw that generally the elderly had a positive attitude towards digital health technology. The sample study identified certain values older adults attached to digital health technologies including, improved communication and care coordination, risk reduction for safety concerns, and fostering their autonomy. Nevertheless, in the same study, they also expressed concerns about privacy, cost reimbursement, and the lack of human contact.
Empowering the aged to maintain some level of independence, also referred to as healthy aging or aging-in-place, is one of the ways nations are looking at caring for an aging population while addressing the increased socio economic impact of that care. In addition to helping reduce the cost associated with institutionalizing elderly populations, many studies have demonstrated that seniors can live healthier more emotionally fulfilling lives by remaining in their own homes with sufficient support systems. As alluded to by Dr. Mike Devoy, Bayer’s Chief Medical Officer in an interview, realizing the full potential of innovative digital solutions and technologies for the elderly hinges greatly on empowering older people to self-manage their health and be equipped to make better health decisions.
The increased adoption of telemedicine, telehealth, remote care, and other digital solutions promises more autonomy, reduced cost, and better treatment outcomes for the elderly. Digital health solutions like at-home monitoring devices could eliminate the need for costly nursing home care and cut down unnecessary hospital visits. In a 2015 report entitled, ”The Digital Revolution comes to the US healthcare” Goldman Sachs estimated that digital health technologies can reduce US healthcare costs by about $305 billion, partly through adoption among older people looking to lower their expenses.
Optimizing the advantages of digital health for the elderly would require addressing the issues that prevent them from accessing or utilizing them. These solutions must be simple to use, adapted to the visual, hearing, and tactile needs of seniors, and generally with fewer processes to enhance usability. Integrating patient engagement technology and visual explanations to improve health literacy and provide technology support could enhance the elderly population’s user experience and satisfaction. In addition, given seniors are generally living on a fixed income and many may be struggling with living costs, affordability is equally important to avoid excluding the elderly from accessing much-needed healthcare services. Digital health is the future of healthcare particularly as healthcare delivery moves out of facilities and closer to patients, hence health technologies need to be customized for seniors to ensure that they can access care where and when they want and take full advantage of imminent advancements in healthcare systems.