tech help
How aging in place is changing in the time of COVID-19
by Cindy Gaines

The coronavirus pandemic has altered life for all of us. But for the elderly and other vulnerable populations, 2020 has been even more tumultuous, frightening and isolating.    

COVID-19 has impacted how seniors and their families envisioned their aging journey and their perceptions of aging-in-place. Before COVID-19, more than 75% of retirees reported wanting to age in place as long as possible. But being isolated in one’s home while social distancing for prolonged periods of time can come with debilitating loneliness, which can lead to serious health issues in itself. To make matters worse, many seniors postponed elective surgeries or proactive care, setting up a future wave of patients who will have post-acute homecare needs or may have been without care for an extended period of time.

Despite the challenges, aging in place should remain a viable option for able seniors. The question becomes: How do we make sure they do so safely and happily during the pandemic, and what should home health professionals know about their evolving role in patient care?

One answer is the increasing role of technology. Though not new, telehealth and remote patient monitoring use skyrocketed in 2020, morphing into a care delivery model that is here to stay. Today’s solutions can help keep seniors connected to their families, homecare professionals and physicians, empowering them to remain in their homes with limited exposure to COVID-19. By combining traditional homecare models with the advantages of modern telehealth, proactive care that keeps patients out of hospitals will improve—and staff safety and patient outcomes will, too.

The Calm Before the Storm

Home health professionals have been unsung heroes during the pandemic, risking their own health by visiting patients’ homes. In a survey by the National Association of Home Care & Hospice (NAHC), more than 40% of home health agencies reported serving actively infected COVID-19 patients in April. Nonetheless, the virus still caused a significant dip in home visit volume in the short term, as many patients canceled visits due to both the hands-on nature of homecare and also the suspension of elective surgeries that typically require follow-on homecare.

This reduction in demand resulted in 85% of agencies reporting revenue loss in the NAHC survey, with an average decrease of 15% to 20%. Ironically, as the country adapted to the initial wave of the virus, care delivery at home was pushed into the spotlight as a critical element in the next phase of the fight against COVID-19. Homecare will inevitably become a viable way to keep patients out of the hospital and has incredible potential to provide essential support—but what does the future patient population look like, and how can both staff and patients be kept safe?

Demand for Post-Acute Care Expected

Because nearly all non-COVID-19 related care took a backseat across the nation and elective surgeries were paused, home health and home medical equipment professionals expect to face a more acute population to care for in the long term. Managing a high volume of patients who have put off their regular care for months or will be recovering from a long-overdue surgery could prove to be overwhelming for homecare. For example, home health agencies often help patients with wound care to prevent infection. If this care was discontinued or postponed for months, patients are at higher risk of complications and increased vulnerability to the effects of the virus.

In a push to keep patients healthy at home, connected technology can help keep both homecare professionals and seniors safe. Using wound care as an example, a homecare specialist would be able to observe the condition of the wound via a high-resolution camera, determine if it is infected, assess whether it needs to breathe or requires a particular ointment, and potentially even teach the patient or family how to dress the wound. This helps eliminate COVID-19 exposure while maintaining visibility into the patient’s condition.

Telehealth’s boom not only means new lines of business for home health providers, but also empowers proactive care delivery and, ultimately, leads to stronger patient outcomes. While health care stakeholders and policymakers may have missed the opportunity to invest in home health during the initial COVID-19 spike, reimbursement conversations around telehealth continue, and there is promise for home health providers as they look to adopt telehealth into their practice standards.

Health Technology on the Rise

While some may dismiss seniors’ comfort level with technology, the truth is, seniors repeatedly demonstrate their ability to leverage technology to manage their health, increasingly adopting a digital mindset. Americans age 65 and over reported a desire to use digital health more than other consumer age groups in an Accenture study, and this age group is increasingly willing to share data from wearables or apps with their health care providers. As the perception of older adults as tech-averse changes in the age of COVID-19, the health care industry’s engagement strategies also need to adapt to better support this generation’s desire to safely age in place.

With care delivery increasingly expanding beyond the hospital’s four walls and into patients’ homes, the ability to manage the complex needs of a growing aging population depends on embracing seniors’ comfort with the digital world. Navigating COVID-19’s impact means improving the ability to reach patients where they are and equipping seniors and their families with the right tools to keep them healthy at home. Connected care solutions—such as telehealth and remote patient monitoring technology—will be key in managing the conditions of aging patients while keeping costs under control. During COVID-19, 91% of seniors using telehealth to gain access to care reported having a favorable experience in a poll conducted by the Better Medicare Alliance, and 78% said they would be likely to use it again. Telehealth visits not only help seniors feel confident that their health is in check without an in-person visit, but also empower them to manage their health independently at home. By bridging traditional clinical settings and homecare with technology, these solutions also allow for better optimization of scarce resources, enhance staff and patient safety, and help achieve the personalized care that seniors have come to value.

The Future of Homecare Relies on Technology

COVID-19 added more complications and considerations to the desire to age in place. Home health care will continue to be front and center as caregivers work to manage the health of vulnerable populations, for which timely and personalized care is critical. However, the future of home health’s role in patient care relies more on the use of connected technology than ever before.

Health care stakeholders need to embrace seniors’ increasingly digital lifestyle and identify ways to tailor care while offering safe options that limit exposure risk for both patients and staff. Only then will seniors feel empowered to age in place with confidence during this challenging time.

Cindy Gaines, MSN, RN, is chief nursing officer and clinical leader for Population Health Management at Philips. She has over 28 years of health care experience, including as chief operating officer and president of administration for a health system in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Gaines has led the integration of patient care across the care continuum and integrated program requirements of third-party payers.