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Grandma Got a Smartphone: How Telehealth is Benefiting the Senior Care Market

60 Minutes recently aired a compelling story titled, “Living to 90 and Beyond.” In it, 60 Minutes Anchor Lesley Stahl asked 99-year-old Jane if she owns a computer. “I had a computer for 10 years and enjoyed it, but it died,”

At almost 100, Jane’s triumph in outliving technology does not mean she lives outside of it.

Telehealth services could be a reality as seniors become more tech savvy.Folks above the age of 90 comprise the fastest-growing part of the U.S. population. Predictably, their healthcare needs are growing just as rapidly. Telehealth services are emerging as a cost-effective solution for delivering this care, despite skepticism that they are capable users.

According to the American Telemedicine Association, telehealth, sometimes called telemedicine, is the remote delivery of healthcare services and clinical information using smartphone apps, video conferencing, traditional telephone audio, remote device monitoring and other media.

And it has become increasingly common as telehealth stakeholders bet against skepticism that seniors will adopt new technology. Information and analytics firm IHS says teleheath revenue in the U.S. will grow from $240 million in 2013 to $1.9 billion by 2018.

Telehealth services will benefit the senior care market.

Estimates on the market size for telemedicine vary widely. But more than 3.2 million patients are expected to adopt telehealth services by 2018, a cumulative annual growth rate of more than 56 percent from last year’s 250,000. The Veterans Health Administration delivered over 300,000 remote consultations using telemedicine in 2011 and about a million Americans are currently using remote cardiac monitors.

Grandma has a smartphone?!

Yup. And she knows how to text, too.

As of last January, 19 percent of all seniors over 65 owned a smart phone and 74 percent owned a cell phone. This creates a vast opportunity for expanding healthcare delivery.

According to an Anthem market study, 74 percent of U.S. consumers indicated that they would use telehealth services. This number is expected to increase as boomers continue to retire.

Although some people who live into their 80s and 90s are mobile, many are home bound. At a time when people are simultaneously losing loved ones and their independence, telehealth can put a patient-centered medical home within reach regardless of where patients live or their financial status.

As goes Medicare, so goes Telehealth

In the past, telehealth’s promise to expand care delivery was limited because of low reimbursement and physician support. Some would add poor implementation to that list as well.

But Medicare’s tentativeness about telehealth is inarguably a primary factor impacting its market adoption.

In certain situations, Medicare reimburses for telehealth services. But patients must reside in a Health Professional Shortage Area or far from any area with high population density and present at “a clinical originating site.” In other words, they must still drive to receive care.

Where does that leave seniors?

Telehealth leaders say it leaves them grossly underserved.

During a May House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee hearing, many telehealth industry representatives and patient advocates called on Congress to update Medicare reimbursement policies for telehealth services for the first time in over a decade.

In February, former U.S. Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) formed the Alliance for Connected Care with members of private industry to expand reimbursement regardless of a patient’s location and the services provided.

The Subcommittee is seeking feedback on efforts to expand telehealth access until June 16. Separately, the Alliance has not yet endorsed any pending legislation.

States and Private Industry on the Forefront

While Medicare tinkers around with the idea of expanded telehealth reimbursement, private industry and many state governments aren’t slowing down. Most insurers cover at least some telehealth services. 20 states and the District of Columbia already require telehealth coverage from private insurers and 46 states offer some type of Medicaid reimbursement for telehealth services.

In addition, many states have launched pilots or formed workgroups to explore the potential which exists to address gaps in care through the remote delivery of care.

videoWhile younger patients have made eager adopters of telehealth, the consumer activity of older Medicare recipients will dictate the standard for reimbursement. And as 60 Minutes anchor Lesley Stahl discovered – do not underestimate older patients’ desire to live youthfully.

When Stahl asked senior citizen Ruthy, who was born shortly after the first electric refrigerator was invented and now is a daily computer user, if she feels 95, Ruthy chirped back: “I feel about 52.”


by Thea Lavin with assistance from Davida Dinerman

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Thea Lavin

Thea Lavin

Senior Account Supervisor at MSLGROUP

Thea Lavin is the Director of the MSLGROUP West Coast Health IT practice. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her partner and twin daughters.

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