5 Ways Healthcare Organizations Can Make Patient Engagement Work for Seniors

By Andrea Powers

French author Jules Renard once said, “It is not how old you are, but how you are old.” For the U.S., this couldn’t be more true as one in every seven Americans was over the age of 65 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Department of Health and Human Services predicts this figure will nearly double by 2060, bringing the senior population to approximately 98.2 million.

How the healthcare industry cares for and engages these individuals will be critical as the nation moves to a more value-based care model that also holds everyone more accountable for positive results. But what do seniors actually want to see in their health results?

Harris Poll and Welltok recently conducted a survey of seniors who were at least 65 to examine just exactly what seniors want with their health and the role technology plays in their health. Survey highlights show that seniors are not only hungry for more information on Medicare (40 percent want to learn more) but 39 percent are interested in better understanding their benefits. 62 percent also wanted to feel good with less pain and 39 percent wanted to live independently.

So how can the healthcare industry help the senior population get the right information at the right time to support a healthier and more independent life? Here are some ways to start.

1. Collect, predict and honor communication preferences

As people age, it is normal to experience changes in vision, hearing and mobility, but this does not have to impact a senior’s participation in staying healthy. One of the first steps in engaging people is to understand their preferred channel of communication – both offline and online. Consumers no longer just appreciate their preferences being heard, they expect it. Yet, in the healthcare world we tend to assume we know what people want and need. For an aging population faced with health challenges, it is more important than ever to identify the best communications channel to meet them where they are. Having conducted millions of communications with senior populations, we have learned a lot. For example, senior men need multiple communications compared to senior woman, and are less likely to take immediate action. Seniors are more likely to authenticate voice calls, but don’t write off technology. Text is one of the fastest growing communications channels – men over 65 were statistically more likely to enroll in a diabetes text messaging than men under 55.

2. Leverage technology Seniors are a tech savvy generation!

Over 80 percent of seniors say technology is part of their daily life, and 56 percent say they would use a health program accessible on a mobile device or computer if it was recommended by a doctor or caregiver, according to the Welltok survey. Additionally, a 2014 Pew survey found that 82 percent of seniors reported that owning a smartphone was “freeing.” With the willingness to both access health programs via a mobile device and general desire and feelings of empowerment with the ownership of a device, it’s clear that the mobile health landscape is ripe for disruption. Another Pew report found six out of 10 seniors search health topics online. I learned this lesson personally as a nurse health coach several years ago when I assumed an 82-year-old man would prefer some brochures to read on his condition. He quickly put me in my place and said, “Actually, dear, if you can give me some reliable websites, I like to do my own research.” (I didn’t make that assumption again, for the record).

3. Organize the chaos

Two of the most common New Year’s Resolutions are “get organized” and “get healthy.” It’s no different for seniors – exercise, good nutrition, regular health screenings, getting vaccines, having enough sleep and participating in social activities are just a few ways to promote healthy aging. And there are a lot of resources available from AARP, Medicare, retail pharmacy programs, but it is a lot to manage and navigate. Seniors need help organizing everything they need to accomplish their goals in one place. This population requires a consumer-designed platform offering a single channel for presenting benefit, health-related and other resources to support them.

4. Personalize

Healthcare is deeply personal and there is no “one size fits all,” especially when it comes to seniors who may be treating several complex conditions at once. In order to engage the senior population, the material has to be relevant to them and their situation. The more we can understand any consumer’s goals and needs, the better we can help to provide them with the resources they need to achieve them. Our data shows that seniors are more than twice as likely to complete Health Risk Assessment Surveys as those 40 and under. Can we be leveraging these surveys differently then and asking other questions about health habits that might better inform care? For example, what if we asked questions about their living situation such as “Do you have mobility challenges” or “Do you find it challenging to live independently?” This type of information could help population health managers caring for seniors get a level deeper to better inform and direct live (in-person or virtually!) consultations, maximizing the clinician and consumer’s time together.

5. Incentivize

Of seniors with room for improvement in their health status, 38 percent in the Harris Poll and Welltok survey indicated that external motivators, such as gift cards and other financial rewards in the form of vouchers, would incentivize them to engage in healthier behaviors. The potential for even modest incentives to increase program uptake among inactive older adults is great. Vouchers can take all sorts of shapes and forms as well: while cash is the most preferred option for many, supermarket vouchers are a close alternative. Tapping into intrinsic motivators is critically important too – seniors enjoy gamification and being competitive, that doesn’t go away with age! They are also equally motivated by personal goals such as playing with grandchildren, looking and feeling good, and maintaining their independence (or not being a burden on family).

The senior population is a group that has always been deeply involved and interested in their healthcare, especially as their health inevitably declines. Yet, it’s traditionally been delivered in a care setting rather than part of their everyday lives. With seniors’ appetite for technology and information, there’s a real opportunity to ensure they have access to the right resources and program, via the right medium and at the right time. And who among us doesn’t want to feel empowered and engaged, to make sure we define how we want to be old, when the time comes.

Original article appeared in MedCityNews on June 2, 2016.