Seniors Aren’t Tech-Averse. We’re Just Not Designing for Their Needs.

By Mark Luck Olson

Seniors are certainly less tech-savvy than younger generations who grew up with it. My parents are from the World War II generation, long before there was the personal computer, let alone the internet. Trying to help my aging mother with email is a challenge. But just because some may not know how to use TikTok, what a nonfungible token is or how to make the WiFi work doesn’t mean they are technology averse.

Of course, it is harder for seniors to adapt to new technology. Even so, the majority of older people have a smartphone and frequently post on social media and video chat with their grandchildren.

Far too many digital health companies mistakenly assume that because some older people struggle with new technology at first, they are totally averse to it. The problem is that digital health companies more often than not fail to design products with seniors in mind.

With the boom in virtual health, a wave of innovation and new technology is making it possible for seniors to age at home. This explosion in consumer-focused digital health is fundamentally about turning healthcare delivery upside down – from the patient visiting the healthcare system periodically to a system where healthcare is in our back pocket 24/7 on our terms.

For seniors who are less physically mobile and may lack transportation and companionship, this idea is even more crucial. Technology can greatly benefit older people, making it convenient and safe to connect with healthcare professionals and follow virtual health plans from the comfort of their own homes. In fact, technology use among people aged 50 and up has skyrocketed during the pandemic, according to an AARP report. Over the last decade, according to Pew Research Center, older people have increasingly adopted technology like  smartphones and tablets, and used social media. Businesswise, seniors make up a good portion of the population, and Medicare spending of nearly $830 billion in 2020 makes up 20% of total National Healthcare Expenditure.

The evolving definition of ‘elderly’

The definition of “old” isn’t what it used to be. The next generation of seniors will have spent much of their middle years using the internet, smartphones, tablets and various software applications, better positioning them to navigate the next iteration of high-tech gizmos and gadgets. Soon there will be no generation that isn’t used to technology being intertwined with daily activities.

For better or worse, retirement isn’t guaranteed as much as it once was, as more people continue to work after 65 – either because they have to, or they want to. According to a 2021 survey, nearly one in five seniors said they planned to work past the age of 70, and another 12% reported they would work full time for the rest of their lives. The image of a senior sitting in a rocking chair drinking lemonade all day is no longer accurate, if it ever was. For those working into their golden years, many will continue to use new and relevant technology regularly.  

Seniors use technology that is helpful for them

Trying to get a grip on the latest technology can be overwhelming and frustrating for seniors. But to then jump to a conclusion that most old people have an aversion to technology is flat out wrong.

Two years into the pandemic, older people, like everyone else, have also had to get more comfortable with virtual health technologies. With fewer in-person healthcare options combined with the risk of COVID-19, older people who have chronic health conditions, mobility issues or other healthcare needs are increasingly willing to turn toward virtual health services and products so they don’t have to leave the home. Aging at home is a trend that is expected to grow bigger in the years ahead, requiring digital health companies to target the aging population.

Digital health for seniors needs to be simple, frictionless

The need for digital health to improve the lives of seniors is there, and the willingness among seniors to use technology is growing. What’s needed is for digital health companies to rise to meet the moment by designing frictionless services and products. That means tricky sensors are out. In fact, ditch the hardware altogether. Forget about asking a senior to fiddle with sensors that require Bluetooth or WiFi. The user interface has to be simple, simple, simple.

In addition to making digital health as easy as possible for older people to use, the products need to take a human-centered approach to care. COVID-19 isn’t only a pandemic of illness; it has spurred a pandemic of isolation as well, particularly impacting older people. Digital health technology should not further fuel separation but rather inspire connectivity. With a click or a tap of the finger, a senior should be able to communicate with a health coach, start a video call with a medical professional or follow an exercise routine from their phone, tablet or desktop computer. Building relationships and trust are essential, as is having a virtual support team who can watch over seniors and intervene when needed.

Sadly, American culture doesn’t value its aging population as much as it could, giving rise to the negative stereotype that seniors are less capable, especially when it comes to technology. Yes, there is a generational gap, but that doesn’t mean digital health companies should treat seniors as irrelevant. The pandemic has shone a light on the need for more digital health solutions aimed at seniors, and research demonstrates they’re willing to adopt new technologies. Seniors deserve new digital health technologies just as much – if not more – than younger people.


RecoveryOne stakes claim in Medicare Advantage: Providing access for Seniors most in need of virtual MSK solutions

If you scan the digital health scene for companies that deliver virtual physical therapies for musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions to the senior population, you likely won’t find any. Yet, if you look at the sheer number of people with MSK problems, half of them are on a Medicare plan.

What’s the disconnect? The simple answer, partnering with a health plan serving Medicare customers is time-consuming and difficult. It’s not as easy as signing up a self-insured commercial customer, which is what other digital MSK health companies target.

That’s why we have expanded our partnership with Cigna to offer virtual physical therapy and a broad MSK solution to Medicare Advantage customers. It’s a strategic collaboration that has allowed us to make a real stake in Medicare by offering RecoveryOne’s solution to treat MSK conditions and injuries as an in-network benefit.

Our platform is currently available to Cigna Medicare Advantage customers within the Tennessee market, which includes plans in North Mississippi, Virginia and North Georgia, with the intention to expand to many other markets.

At RecoveryOne, we don’t shy away from challenges or hard sells. We are invested in our customers and make every effort to ensure all of their members have access to our MSK platform. In fact, RecoveryOne was founded originally to support total hip and total knee populations. It was our bread and butter in the early days and a meaningful proportion of those customers was in the 65 and older crowd. While we have improved our offering since then to be a comprehensive solution for all back and joint problems, we haven’t forgotten our roots and continue to support seniors.

The need for MSK solutions aimed at the senior population
Nearly three out of four people age 65 and over in the United States are affected by MSK ailments, most commonly damage caused by osteoarthritis and fall-related injuries. Yet, the MSK digital health industry is focused on self-insured employers, not Medicare-managed health plans, which cuts out a huge swath of the senior population, the ones who would benefit most from it. In some instances, digital health companies who contract with self-insured employers end up with older customers through the company retirement benefits program. But that’s almost by accident and makes up a marginal slice of the Medicare pie. We purposefully aim to help and support seniors.

RecoveryOne saw a need to expand digital programming to a vulnerable population. With Covid, it is even more important to offer virtual service so seniors don’t have to venture out into the pandemic and risk exposure. 

From the comforts of their home, seniors meet virtually with a physical therapist for an initial assessment. The appointment is with a real person, not a bot. Based on the unique factors for the individual, the therapist chooses one of our 200 clinically proven pathways that includes exercises to reduce pain and improve recovery. Every customer also receives a personal health coach who connects with them regularly to motivate and answer questions via messaging. To keep it simple, we don’t bother with sensors, they are bulky and annoying to wear during exercises.


Historically, most people don’t finish their in-person physical therapy, mainly because it’s a hassle. With RecoveryOne, it’s not a chore. It’s simply convenient and effective. And our health coaches are there to support seniors along the way.

 

Debunking the Myth Old People are Tech-Averse
The question I most often get asked about serving the Medicare population is “Aren’t seniors tech-averse?” I mistakenly assumed the same years ago. I’m relieved to know I was wrong.  So, let’s debunk it.

The vast majority of older people have smartphones. Grandparents today regularly use their phones to video chat with their grandchildren and post on Facebook. Today, smartphone adoption is 86% for 50 to 59 and 81% for those 60 to 69, with 62% of those 70 and older using smartphones. And that’s all you need to access our MSK solution.

On our platform, I’ve been pleasantly educated to see a senior population’s high level of comfort with our technology. Seniors surely aren’t as tech-savvy as the Gen Z population, but they are more than capable of accessing and navigating RecoveryOne. And just because they aren’t digital natives doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get access to digital health solutions.

A Scalable Solution for Seniors that Saves Money

Working with Cigna’s Medicare Advantage customers is a scalable, cost-effective solution for helping heal seniors with MSK injuries. 

Because Medicare Advantage customers don’t have to leave their homes or wait weeks for an available in-person appointment, they save money, time and energy not having to travel or pay for expensive gym memberships.

RecoveryOne saves health plans money. Based on national claims data from more than 350,000 members, RecoveryOne reduced the total medical cost by $751 per member per month for MSK-related diagnoses and reduced costs by nearly 77% for low back pain and 84% for rotator cuff tears.

So while the MSK digital health industry may appear crowded, it actually fails to address the senior consumer population. That’s a massive missed opportunity. Let’s help those who need virtual care most heal from their injuries or surgeries. Now that RecoveryOne’s solution is available to Medicare Advantage customers, there is work to be done to expand even further and improve our product even more.