Joel Theisen
Joel Theisen

Minneapolis-based Lifesprk recently acquired 35 Tealwood Senior Living communities, bringing them under Lifesprk Senior Living. Lifesprk CEO Joel Theisen recently shared with McKnight’s Senior Living the company’s vision to bring people to services, not services to people, using technology and artificial intelligence. Dr. Bill Thomas, Lifesprk’s independence officer, is a key architect in designing the holistic model that will deliver this new experience.

Q: How did this latest move start? What was the thinking behind it?

A: We’ve been working in senior housing for 13 years with traditional home care, and we’ve been providing assisted living and memory care for quite a long time. About a year ago, we acquired our first full global risk value-based contracts with MA, one of the big payers in Minnesota. We said, ‘This is a great opportunity for us to bring all of our architecture into these aggregated sites, where there are a lot of seniors.’ We were already doing it, but we wanted to do it holistically and have the property management side. Some owners asked us to start providing services. They loved what we were doing and thought it was a good opportunity to come underneath the Lifesprk model.

Q: What will set these communities apart from an existing senior living community, or even a former Tealwood community?

A: We want to think that our design of how we serve people is setting-agnostic. What’s really different as it relates to senior housing is, we’re bringing not just primary care but 24/7 on-site geriatric expert medical services into all of these communities. So if someone has an acute event, we can serve them with a hospital at home or SNF at home, so they don’t have to go through very strenuous and, many times, dangerous, acute care events within a different system.

Another thing that’s different relates to the social determinant side. We built the Lifesprk brand around customer-intimate holistic services, and so we’re bringing that full complement, which we call our Lifesprk experience, where we discover what’s important in people’s lives. We build life plans—not care plans, not disease plans—that are directed by the customer and their family.

Then the third thing, which is really, really big, is the technology side. Lifesprk has probably invested over $30 million in the last three and a half years building two very, very important things. One, what we call our electronic life record, which is a new operating system that we’ve created around building and aggregating a lot of data, including medical data, claims data and other psychosocial and first-party data, to be able to build a pretty big data lake. And we have an insights engine on top that that we’re able to help our providers be able to have the right information at the right time. That’s longitudinal information and data, not just another electronic medical record. This is a very sophisticated operating system that allows us to understand and deliver high-value services to people.

And then on the other side of it is the analytics. We’re saying, ‘We’re going to really be accountable to you and your family to make sure that your outcomes, as they relate to your goals and what you want to see with your mom and what you want to to see in your life, happen.’ We’re going to deliver lower readmission rates. We’re going to deliver lower initial hospitalizations. We’re going to decrease falls. We’re going to decrease social isolation.

Q: Could you talk more about the technology and artificial intelligence Lifesprk is using?

A: Let me just give you a couple of ways we’re using it, from a provider standpoint. One of the things that’s really cool is, because we have a process, this Lifesprk experience, where it is so holistic and deep, we ask a lot of questions. We want to know, do you have food insecurities? What is your relationship with your support systems? What drives your happiness? All these types of things.

Let’s just use an example. Molly loves to go to church. She sees her friends at church. It’s really important for her spiritually. And so it’s important for her to be able to get to church.

So in our technology, we’re putting in some of these behaviors and these activities that are really important. We’re tracking data, lots of datasets, and as we go forward, all of a sudden we see that Molly hasn’t been to church four out of the last 10 Sundays. So it’s signal technology — ‘Hey, let’s make sure we interface there and talk to Molly about what’s going on. What are we missing here? Is this still really a goal? Is it transportation? Is it cost? Let’s go back and do some root cause analysis here and avoid what’s next, which is probably depression, probably a fall, probably failure to thrive.’ Something was maybe going on here that we want to proactively get in front of. We’re able to track where and how her medical situation is, but also how her emotional and psychosocial health is, both self-reported and also based on passive and active information.

So how do we get passive and active information? We also have the internet of things. We have a lot of [application programming interface] to a lot of products. We’re using everything from smartwatches, which are passive, to active Alexas, smartpads, telehealth. We have all of it, because we’re not just one-trick ponies.

So we’re connecting. And not only are we able to get information, but we’re able to curate content around education, advancement. If Molly likes basket-weaving, let’s push content to Molly around basket-weaving. It’s not that hard. Let’s make sure that we understand that this is part of her life plan. So we’re going to curate content based on that life plan.

It could also be medical things that we all know, algorithms for certain disease states and certain processes, but more importantly on the life-affirming type stuff. We’re able to push content as well through this electronic life record and database. I don’t know of anybody that’s able to pull that off in a macro way that’s really affecting these communities or these environments as globally as we’re going to be doing.

We really believe in population health. A lot of people say they do population health, but they don’t do population health. They do value-based services. Population health is really helping the community, helping the clients. We really want to be population health people and let people make informed choices. And this is such a great feeling to have this housing platform. Most people would like to stay in their own home, but at the same point, that’s kind of a little misnomer, because they don’t know any different. Nobody wants to go to a long-term care bed. That’s a given. A lot of people do better in their residential home in their community, and there also are people who do better in independent living or in an assisted living environment with people around them who care about them, who are meeting with them and talking to them everyday and engaged.

Q: How do you see these efforts helping to address some of the challenges that are facing senior living right now, such as occupancy or costs or workforce issues?

A: I don’t see us as having problems with occupancy, because people need and want social environments. It’s a good thing to be connected to a lot of other people. The differentiation is really key. We’re not that worried about occupancy, because the senior population is just going gangbusters. We’re on the front side of the age wave, and if you have really good services and you have a really good brand and a really good reputation, those properties are always going to be full.

As it relates to some of the challenges around workforce, we have dedicated a lot of resources to what we’re calling our Lifesprk University, where we’re developing real skills around this holistic model and customer service and service in general.

We recently had five home health aide positions that were open, and we had 50 people apply. Lifesprk never has used pool staffing. We’ve never used outside staffing, ever, and we won’t, because when you do the right thing in the world and you really commit to your culture and you really create the experience for people, that they can take their gifts and bring them to people in a real way, you draw people. Don’t get me wrong. Is it hard? Yes. But we have really worked hard on it.

Q: How has Dr. Bill Thomas been involved?

A: I’ve known Bill for about 15 years. He started working more with us about two years ago. Bill’s building out a whole new experience. It’s an intergenerational community aspect where we start to really, truly knock the walls down and instill community in these new buildings.

We’re going to create a much different connection on the technology side, where families will have deep access into this electronic life record so they not only can see what is going on but how they can participate in Mom’s or Dad’s experience.

As it relates to the greater community, we’re going to educate people already receiving services from us that they can become involved in the buildings we have near them.

As we think about intergenerational more deeply, we have some commitments to start to integrate additional housing for people who work on site.

Q: Will this model result in physical changes to the former Tealwood communities or new communities?

A: We are talking about physical adaptations. It’s evolving.

Q: Are you going to expand beyond Minnesota and Wisconsin?

A: Yes, 100%. We’ll probably start scaling nationally within 24 months. This housing piece was the last one we wanted to connect in there.

Editor’s note: An abbreviated version of this article appears in the June 2021 issue of the print magazine as the “A Few Minutes With…” department.