During the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors and vulnerable populations became more dependent than ever on their care circles, which included people from grandchildren to neighbors, professional helpers and health care providers—and home medical equipment (HME) providers. Care circles played a crucial role in assisting with errands and nursing care, and offered essential human connections that seniors were no longer receiving from the outside world.
The pandemic has also drastically impacted the homecare industry and pushed many older adults to receive care at home rather than at long-term care facilities or nursing homes. An analysis of federal data by the Wall Street Journal found that nursing home occupancy rates in the United States have dropped 15% since the end of 2019. Meanwhile, an AP-NORC Center study published in May 2021 found that 88% of Americans prefer to receive care at home as they age, while only 2% said they want to receive care in a nursing home.
While patients are less inclined to receive care at a nursing home, seniors and vulnerable populations have also become increasingly reliant on easy-to-use technologies to interact effortlessly with their care circles. According to Peter Rinderud, a senior researcher of statistics at Ericsson, more seniors turned to the internet and electronic devices due to isolation and feelings of loneliness during the pandemic. This came after seniors had already closed the “smartphone usage gap between them and younger generations,” he said, citing Ericsson research.
Every day, most seniors browse the internet, use instant messaging and social media, watch videos and communicate via video calls. These trends are important to note for the homecare industry because internet skills will be critical for seniors moving forward as “more health appointments, services and products are migrating online,” Rinderud points out.
According a 2018 study in The Journals of Gerontology, seniors have four social network types: restricted, child-based, friend-oriented and diverse. Friend-oriented networks are more common in Western and Northern European countries. Technology has been a critical asset for the many seniors who are part of restricted networks in which they have fewer sources of support and little interaction with network members.
Researchers say, “those with restricted networks tend to have the poorest well-being,” due to “few sources of support and little interaction with network members,” while those with diverse networks fare the best. However, technology that connects to the outside world can be used by family members and providers to improve the overall experience for patients in restricted networks.
Beyond Telehealth: Technologies That Support Safe Aging In Place
As the country adapts to COVID-19, homecare operators and clinical staff should recognize that older adults and vulnerable patient populations prefer to continue to receive most of their health care and other services at home.
Approximately 85% of older adults have at least one chronic condition and 60% have two or more conditions that make them more vulnerable to serious illness. Expect to see a pattern of continuing wariness about in-person visits with clinicians and others for the foreseeable future—and thus a greater reliance on technology.
Going forward, care providers must offer older adults and vulnerable populations multiple channels to connect with their care circles for health care services, medical emergencies, ongoing monitoring or even just to chat with a loved one. The introduction of new care models and technology advancements over the last few years have opened more options that help people age safely at home, and HME providers can help provide the hardware and support for these services and increase their bottom lines in the process.
Specifically, researchers expect to see an acceleration of the following three technologies as seniors increasingly choose to spend more time at home in a post-COVID-19 world.
During the pandemic, personal emergency response systems (PERS) became even more essential for home-bound seniors and vulnerable populations, offering immediate medical help and fostering human connections. Rather than being dependent on a cellphone, users can press a button via a device worn around their neck and receive assistance for any reason.
PERS systems connect to an operator at a call center within seconds. The technology allows the operator to send the appropriate responder based on a person’s needs, including emergency services, caregivers, family members or neighbors. As seniors continue to spend more time at home, a human voice can offer a sense of security and safety that doesn’t happen with voicemail or text.
2. RPM & Hospital-at-Home Models
Older adults with chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as those with acute illnesses, are more likely to receive care at home moving forward due to the physical difficulty of going to a doctor’s office or hospital, coupled with the lingering fear of COVID-19. Remote patient monitoring (RPM) and hospital-at-home models will play a critical role in providing their ongoing care.
Over the last few years, RPM technology has become more advanced and simpler to use. For example, patients can easily measure their blood sugar and blood pressure at home using wireless devices that transmit information to a dashboard to be read by a medical professional who is watching and responding. The hospital-at-home model uses similar technologies to offer acute patient care.
3. Prepackaged Apps
Mobile apps that bring together care circles in an effort to help seniors, vulnerable populations and other individuals who may be prone to social isolation become more engaged are growing in popularity.
These apps come pre-loaded with an individual’s care circle, allowing one-click texting and calling to family and friends, caregivers, shopping and other activities. For instance, a person will be able to access news and events happening in the world around them to reduce social isolation.
Technology Redefining Homecare
The new ecosystem of providing health care and safety in the home is here to stay and will continue to evolve as more consumers demand it. Seniors, including baby boomers, will significantly influence the growth trajectories of both RPM and hospital-at-home, especially since the pace of people turning 65 each day isn’t expected to slow until at least 2060.
The broader health care system will also benefit as technology increasingly allows care to move more effortlessly into the home. For example, once patients leave the clinical setting, clinicians often lose visibility into a person’s health and safety. PERS and RPM technologies can fill these gaps by generating key patient data on falls, calls into a call center, respiratory device usage, chronic conditions and additional information that can lead to actionable insights as well as proactive intervention.
One critical example of these technologies in action took place during the peak of the pandemic, when RPM systems were able to identify COVID-19-related symptoms early on, allowing interventions to occur before a person’s condition deteriorated and they were admitted to the emergency room or the ICU. At the same time, providing care teams with actionable patient data frees them up to spend time on those who need it most while reducing hospital admissions and readmissions.
With access to more real-time patient information, homecare clinical teams can coordinate or change a plan of care based on these insights. This is a goal that the industry as a whole should be working toward.
In the future, the role of technology in improving the health of patients as they age will continue to grow, allowing more people to live at home longer.
New health care technologies, namely PERS, RPM and prepackaged apps, are taking the pressure off the health care delivery model’s need to provide costly, labor-intensive care in hospitals and doctor’s offices. Instead, early interventions using new technologies are reducing costs and helping individuals live at home safely and with dignity, all while supporting holistic, value-based care.