Mark Twain may have said age is a case of mind over matter, but it’s just not true when it comes to senior health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 85% of adults over the age of 65 have at least one chronic condition such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease or hypertension – and those can translate into significant healthcare costs. (Read this article for more about chronic diseases in assisted living residents.)
The struggle to provide affordable and accessible care to older individuals may get worse before it gets better. A Population Reference Bureau report predicts a 75% increase in the number of older Americans requiring nursing home care by 2030. The report also says the number of Americans 65 and older will double from 46 million today to more than 98 million by 2060. People are living longer than ever before — and that has serious implications for the costs and clinical demands of elder care.
As healthcare leaders look for new ways to control costs and bring care to older individuals, many are turning to telemedicine to deal with current challenges:
- Appointments can be difficult for older people. Arthritis and mobility issues such as Parkinson’s disease can make it tough for seniors to get dressed and into a car, let alone navigate parking, multi-level facilities, and getting from the car to the provider. Elderly people living independently on fixed incomes might have multiple conditions such as chronic heart failure, kidney disease, poor eyesight or depression that keep them at home instead of seeking treatment. The one in five adults over 65 who don’t have a spouse or children to intervene can be especially isolated.
- Providers lack visibility. When older individuals become homebound or are admitted into a hospital, their primary care provider often has no idea of their recent medical events or new medications — which makes it difficult to effectively manage their care.
- Communities often lack on-site expertise. Your senior living community may lack staff physicians, which limits the on-site care available. Medically fragile older adults who have simple issues, such as a minor respiratory infection, often must be transported to emergency rooms as a result — which can expose them to viruses, disrupted routines and confusion.
An easier path to smarter elder care
Telemedicine can support and improve senior care in myriad ways. Although some geriatricians are reluctant to connect their older patients to virtual care, a recent University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging found that many adults over the age of 50 were interested in the idea of greater convenience. More than 47% believed that the overall convenience of a telehealth visit would be better than an in-person office visit; 48% expressed interest in telemedicine visits with their primary care provider, 40% were interested in virtual specialty care and 35% were interested in virtual mental health services.
Telehealth benefits for senior care tend to fall into four categories:
- Convenience. Telemedicine can eliminate the discomfort of long waits in physician offices or driving long distances for elderly patients. For instance, instead of struggling to visit her neurologist at the hospital, someone with Parkinson’s could stay home while her doctor evaluates her gait, movements and speech over high-definition video. Telemedicine also can let caregivers and family members virtually participate in visits or hospital rounds, instead of relying on the older adult’s memory or poor hearing.
- Disease management. Many older people with diagnoses of conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or congestive heart failure worry that their days of independent living are coming to an end. Now, providers are using remote patient monitoring to follow these individuals in their homes, monitoring their vital signs, glucose levels and other medical data with connective devices. A physician can change medication or schedule a home health nurse visit before the individual requires inpatient care.
- Fewer hospitalizations. When older people already live in assisted living communities or nursing homes, telemedicine can connect on-site staff to specialized medical expertise instead of transporting weakened residents to hospitals — which can increase their stress and lead to infections or deteriorating health. And a study published in the American Journal of Managed Care found that reducing transportation costs for in-person physician office visits can save long-term care facilities $479 million each year.
- Better care coordination and visibility. By inserting telemedicine at the right touchpoints, providers can stay apprised of elderly individuals’ changing conditions and other doctors. From receiving discharge care plans from emergency room departments to consulting with home health nurses, this kind of 360-degree visibility can optimize care coordination and health outcomes across acute-cate and ambulatory settings.
Staying healthy in the golden years
Telemedicine can extend seniors’ ability to live vibrant and independent lives even after an injury or chronic illness diagnosis. As the “graying of America” picks up speed, it’s clear that the healthcare industry needs fresh approaches to both controlling costs and improving seniors’ quality of life. Virtual care can do both while helping everyone look forward to being healthier and more autonomous in their golden years.