An aging population has thrown healthcare innovation, patient engagement, and new technologies all into sharp focus as the industry grapples with ways to maintain high-quality care delivery.
In 2017, about 16 percent of the American population was 65 years old or older, a figure expected to reach 22 percent by 2050. Senior citizens aged 65 and older make up the highest utilizers of healthcare, representing 45.2 percent of the top 10 percent in terms of expenditures. How the healthcare industry cares for and engages these individuals matters now more than ever as the nation moves towards a value-based care model.
A New Way to Engage
A Patient-centric Approach
Crystal Morse, account manager at MPQH, helped establish a patient and family advisory council (PFAC), which is helping develop a patient-centric approach to the work Mountain-Pacific provides under contract with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The aging population of 60 and older quickly became the group’s focus, as the need to represent the “patient voice” in improving the quality of care for older adults became clear.
“Seniors are the biggest utilizers of healthcare and the most often underutilized when it comes to patient engagement,” shares Crystal.
Gloria, also known as “Glorious Gloria,” age 90 (pictured below by herself and a high school student), is an active member of the PFAC and lives by her favorite quote: “If you’re not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.” She’s not afraid of change and is an advocate for her follow seniors. Gloria has a cell phone she uses to text family members. She knows there are apps available on her phone, but she’s not sure why she needs them. She’s certainly not using her phone to communicate with her doctor, to schedule appointments, or check her health records.
Gloria isn’t alone. In fact, according to the AARP, more than half of older adults are not set up on any patient portals. Forty percent do not like communicating about their health via computer, and 26 percent are uncomfortable with technology.
On the flip side, three in four older Americans want to stay in their homes and age in place. Might technology and further use of an app help them achieve this goal?
Creating High-Tech Connections
In 2018 AARP launched a program called Senior High-Tech Event. The idea was to engage high school students to teach seniors how to access and make better use of their technology devices, with the ultimate goal of creating connected, tech-savvy, empowered seniors. The program provided some much-needed personal connection at the same time.
In April 2018 high school students from Torrington and Lingle, Wyoming, held their first two-hour event that included two main elements: lunch and one-on-one tutoring with cell phones, tablets, and other devices. There’s no agenda, as the format of programming is intentionally left loose to adapt to the needs of the group.
Intergenerational interactions can be hard to come by for seniors living alone, and conversely, young people can often benefit from the company and wisdom of seniors. Having students teach the seniors seemed a win-win, helping students gain valuable experience and allowing seniors to learn new ways to advocate for themselves and their own care.
By November, word of the program had spread, and requests from senior centers across the region came pouring in. The Senior High-Tech Event became a gateway that led to a partnership with hospitals/clinics and patient portal access.
Hospital and clinic staff visited senior centers with devices, guides, brochures, and follow-up contact information. They demonstrated log-in and provider portal features, so seniors knew how to view health records, immunizations and lab results, request appointments and prescription refills, upload advance directives, send and receive messages, and add family members and care givers.
With AARP coordinating Medicare beneficiaries and the recruitment of high school students, MPQH identified the senior centers and worked with the hospitals and clinics. The official merging of the senior high-tech event and the patient portal tutorial launched in August 2019, with Gloria as campaign spokesperson and AARP funding her to hit the road and share her story.
What Success Looks Like
As a result of this effort, 182 seniors, including Gloria, were trained across four Wyoming counties, with some key lessons learned for replicating and expanding the model:
- Meetings should be held at senior centers, as that increases the likelihood of participation.
- This is a low-cost program, as the only expense is in the lunch provided to the participants. Costs can be easily offset through donations, agencies, service organizations, or even the hospitals and health systems interested in reaching this population.
- Keeping the agenda loose proved to be most valuable in allowing for easy connections and adapting to the needs of those in attendance.
The wins are numerous. The program set out to empower seniors through the use of their technology devices, but the end result was so much more.
“We’ve empowered our seniors to engage in their own health and healthcare by understanding how to access and use a patient portal,” says Crystal. “We trained nearly 200 seniors, and I’m certain they’ll be sharing their knowledge with their peers.”
And quite possible the best win of them all: connections. Lonely people are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships, according to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The value of the connections made between seniors and high school students is not easily measured but was felt profoundly by all involved.
“Lives were changed through this process,” Crystal shares. “We reduced social isolation that’s often felt by folks in this age group, while our high school students honed their tech skills and even received high school credit and community service hours while giving back in a truly meaningful way.”
Unrelated to this project, the high school kids decided to put on a “senior” prom for their new friends.
“It was all their idea, and I’m not sure who had more fun, the kids or the seniors. Truly, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
About Mountain-Pacific Quality Health
Mountain-Pacific Quality Health, based in Helena, MT, and founded in 1973, is a nonprofit health care improvement organization providing solutions for better health. In part, under the direction of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), Mountain-Pacific partners with health care providers, practitioners, stakeholders, patients, and families on a variety of quality improvement initiatives to achieve better care, better population health and lower health care costs. For more information visit mpqhf.org.