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As our parents age, health care stakeholders should determine how to connect with them…and with us (their caregivers)

My mother and I have completely different health needs, we don’t engage with the health care system the same way, and we have vastly different expectations. My mom is 91, nearly blind, and spends her days at an assisted living facility. While I am continually connected to technology, she goes out of her way to avoid it…although she does make an exception to watch Family Feud every evening. For years, she refused to let us swap out her monstrous 20-year-old TV for a sleek flat screen. We went ahead and installed a new flat screen when we moved her into an assisted-living facility this summer. But she won’t let us connect the digital assistant we bought so that she could use voice commands to call us whenever she wanted to talk. (It sits on a side table next to her recliner, disconnected).

Adult children often don’t have the time or the means to care for an elderly parent—or to arrange care. As the health needs of our parents increase, we as caregivers will likely increasingly demand a health care system that is convenient, easy to use, and ensures high-quality care. In addition to trying to connect with disengaged patients, stakeholders should also determine how to connect with their caregivers.

Health consumers fall into four distinct categories

The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions recently surveyed 4,530 US adults to learn how people engage with, and respond to, various components of the health care system. Our researchers used 158 variables to categorize these consumers based on how they engage with the health care system. While demographics such as age, income, and ethnicity certainly have influence, they aren’t the only factors. We all have different approaches for determining which health plan offers the most appropriate coverage, when and where to seek care at a hospital, how to choose a doctor, and whether a pharmaceutical product or medical device offers value.

Drawing parallels to some of the personalities from the American frontier, each survey respondent was placed into one of four categories based on how they engage with technology and health care:

  • Trailblazers (tech-savvy, self-directed, engaged in wellness, willing to share data)
  • Prospectors (rely on recommendation from friends/family, use providers as trusted advisors, willing to use technology)
  • Homesteaders (reserved, cautious traditionalists)
  • Bystanders (complacent, tech-reluctant, resistant to change, unengaged)

While I see myself as a Trailblazer, my mom is a cross between a Homesteader and a bystander. She generally trusts the health care system, she is willing to change doctors when not satisfied with the level of care she receives, and she would be more interested in using technology if it weren’t for her blindness.

It wasn’t long ago that my parents were early adopters of technology and would have fallen into the Trailblazer category. In 1996, my parents bought a motor home and traversed the country for six years connected to us and the world by a laptop and a cellphone. She isn’t as healthy as she was back then. Three years ago, her vision began to deteriorate. She refuses to admit that she suffers from depression, which is probably tied to her blindness. She has lost weight because she often doesn’t feel like eating, and she has to keep up with several prescription drugs to treat a variety of conditions.

While some people, particularly older individuals, avoid interacting with the health care system, there are several strategies stakeholders should consider to connect to them. Here are four ways stakeholders can connect with people who fall into the Bystander segment:

  • Identify and involve a caregiver. Bystanders typically won’t engage with the health system on their own. Rather they trying to engage directly with a Bystander, health systems, doctors, MA plans, pharmacies, and other health care stakeholders might find it more effective to connect with formal or informal caregivers such as a home nurse, family member, or friend who can help the patient make decisions.
  • Leverage the community. Elderly women like my mom might respond to messages from community organizations that they interact with regularly (e.g., churches, grocery stores, or beauty salons). Such messages might encourage them to get flu shots/vaccines at a community pop-up, get information about diabetes or stroke prevention from the local beauty salon, participate in mobile screenings at their local grocery store, or partake in healthy eating education at church potlucks.
  • Tailor solutions for unique barriers. My mother nearly died a few months ago after her doctor incorrectly diagnosed her heart failure as pneumonia…even though she had been previously diagnosed with heart issues. If we could have used a device or app to determine that her heart condition was getting worse, we could have avoided a trip to the emergency room, an inpatient stay, weeks in a rehabilitation facility and meds for a condition that she didn’t have. Life sciences companies could make caregivers aware of technologies that could keep elderly patients out of the hospital.
  • Treat the Bystander with respect: Since the Bystander is not as engaged as the other consumers, stakeholders might think they are not capable of understanding clinical information. But each interaction with a Bystander could be a high-value opportunity to engage with them. An in-person office visit could be an opportunity to spend additional time addressing their questions and concerns, or identifying family members or other caregivers.

Every consumer makes decisions differently, and each segment of the population has a different approach when making decisions about their health. It might be difficult for a health system, doctor, or a Medicare representative to connect directly with someone like my mother. Instead, they should consider other ways to make a connection. Organizations that are able to see their customers beyond just demographics are likely to be more effective in targeting, attracting, and retaining customers.

Author bio

Claudia is a managing director in the Advisory Life Sciences and Health Care practice of Deloitte & Touche LLP, specializing in healthcare strategy, regulatory, and operations for both the Provider and Health Plan sectors. She leads the Strategic and Operational Risk offerings for Advisory Health Care Provider. Claudia has more than 25 years of experience in the health care industry in both consulting and with large health systems in senior leadership roles in the areas of strategic planning, operations, and financial management. Her experiences include a focus on developing and leading complex strategic initiatives across multiple business units, primarily in the areas of quality and patient experience, population health, and cost management.