Can Technology Solve Our Health Care Problems?
By Seth Bailey
Seniors often say that technology is the realm of the young. Statistically, it's true that people younger than 65 use digital devices more. However, it's the older generations that stand to benefit most from all technology has to offer.
America is aging. It's estimated that by 2020, almost 40% of the country's population will be older than 50. Though this increase presents many challenges, one of the most intimidating is health care. Studies predict that by 2025 the United States will experience a massive shortage of health care professionals, deficient around 155,000 doctors and 500,000 nurses. With more elderly patients requiring care and not enough health care professionals to provide it, it's imperative that we find new solutions to help seniors stay healthy.
Technology could be the answer to keeping elderly Americans healthier, at home, and independent as they age. Two fields are already pioneering the way: medication management and telemedicine.
As we age, we rely on medication to both maintain and improve our health. While medicine helps many retain their independence, the American Heart Association cautions: "Poor medication adherence takes the lives of 125,000 Americans annually, and [it] costs the health care system nearly $300 billion a year in additional doctor visits, emergency department visits, and hospitalizations." Medication adherence is a serious problem that might have a simple solution.
Medication management apps and pill dispensers ensure that seniors follow their medication schedules. These technologies prompt users to take their measured doses at the correct times. Many apps send reminders when it's time to refill a prescription—and store pharmacy contact information, so the user can reorder medication within the app. Designed for the family's peace of mind, there are also apps which track whether a pill bottle has been opened and how many pills were taken out. It's estimated that medication management technology increases adherence by 40%—potentially saving 50,000 lives and $120 billion each year.
Telemedicine and video conferencing make a huge impact on the health of seniors who use it. Through cameras in computers, tablets, and smartphones, doctors "visit" their patients in the comfort of their own homes. Not only does this save time, allowing doctors to see more patients, it also drastically cuts costs (including travel, overhead, visits, and missed visits). A recent study by Accenture focused on a community in Spain where one in five patients use telemedicine. The study concluded that these virtual visits decreased the number of hospital stays by 52,000 and saved the community $55 million—in just one year. As telemedicine gains HIPAA compliance, and more insurance companies cover the cost, the positive influence this technology can have on the aging generation is profound.
Senior Technology Adoption
These two examples are just a glimpse at the medical technology that can bridge the widening gap between the number of patients who need care and the number of medical professionals available. Unfortunately, many seniors are hesitant about embracing technology.
Some seniors' hesitation stems from a lack of comfort or confidence with using devices. In fact, according to Pew Research, more than 77% of Americans older than 65 say they need help using their computers, smartphones, or tablets. Most of this discomfort comes from fear: of doing something wrong, breaking the device, or not understanding. However, according to one of the surveys at iTOK.net, an extraordinary 95% of seniors would use medical technology if it were recommended by their doctor, and 91% would if it lowered their insurance costs. How can we help those who need medical technology the most incorporate it successfully into their lives?
Educating Seniors About New Technology
The answer comes in three stages, the first of which is education. The best way to help seniors adopt health care technology is to teach them how to use it. It's time for our industry to take an active interest in educating seniors about technology, because the interest is there. The Older Adult and Technology Use survey by Pew Research shows that 71% of seniors who use technology are passionate, daily users. All they need is someone to get them started and guide them along the way.
There are ways for seniors to access the education they need. Communities often provide computer classes in senior living centers, community centers, and libraries. For those who want more formal training, most states, colleges, and universities offer free tuition benefits for senior citizens. There are even national programs such as OATS and OASIS, which focus on computer education for people over age 55. However, too many of these programs—especially at the local level—suffer from a lack of funding and volunteers. And attendance depends on a level of mobility that many aging adults may not have.
Creating Senior-Friendly Technology
The second stage is to create senior-friendly technology—devices designed for senior usability. While younger generations line up for the newest "it" gadgets, most seniors crave technology that feels familiar and easy to use. They prefer robust devices designed with intuitive buttons, straightforward navigation, and fewer "bells and whistles" to minimize confusion and avoid mistakes. Rather than chasing the latest and greatest, they choose devices that are cost-efficient. The tech industry should keep these tenets in mind when creating devices for the senior market.
Supporting Seniors With Technology
The third stage is to offer ongoing support. People make mistakes and discoveries when adopting new technology; there's a learning curve to different devices and operating systems. However, most seniors admit they don't want to ask for help, fearing that they'll be a nuisance, look foolish, or be talked down to. Furthermore, it's challenging for seniors to describe technical problems over the phone to someone who can't see their device. Seniors need strong support from local family members and friends, but when that isn't an option or becomes too inconvenient, remote tech support services can step in to fill the role. When seniors know they have someone to call who will patiently fix and explain problems, they're more comfortable using their devices.
With our growing senior population living longer than ever, it's critical that we use technology to solve and relieve health care woes. By providing the education and support they deserve, as well as designing devices that prioritize their needs, we can help seniors improve their health and maintain their independence, empowering them to enjoy happier, longer lives.
— Seth Bailey is chief strategy officer of iTOK, a remote technology support company for seniors.