No, it’s not the Millennials. It’s the Baby Boomers.
The Baby Boomer generation is aging, but unlike any other generation before them. Throughout their lives, Baby Boomers have helped drive scientific innovation and embraced new technology to enhance their way of life, from the internet and cell phones to wearable technology and remote monitoring.
As this new generation ages and requires more from healthcare providers, they will challenge existing stereotypes associated with older adults, such as being resistant to new ideas, slow to adapt and highly dependent on others. These stereotypes are ubiquitous in our society and when used by healthcare providers to determine treatment, they can result in inappropriate or ineffectual care.
With an average of 10,000 people turning 65 every day, understanding and meeting the changing needs of a new generation of older adults has never been more important. And, with 77 million members, there has never been a larger generation of older Americans than the Baby Boomers.
Specialty care providers can play a critical role in engaging with these older patients – but only if they’re able to fully understand this generation’s needs, change their preconceived notions of aging and deliver services designed to meet them where they are.
Understanding this generation
The sheer size of the Baby Boomer generation will stretch the resources of the U.S. healthcare system, but their attitudes and behaviors will have an even greater impact on healthcare providers, forcing them to rethink the delivery of care.
Currently between the ages of 52-70, the Baby Boomer generation can expect to live longer than their parents, but will also have higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and obesity. Additionally, this aging generation will add to the number of patients being treated for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic and complex diseases.
Boomers will also be the most tech-savvy generation of older Americans ever. Consider these statistics:
- Boomers spend more time consuming online content than both Millennials and Gen Xers.
- 81 percent of Boomers own a mobile phone and 85 percent use it for texting.
- The internet is one of the first places Boomers go to conduct health research.
While Boomers are technologically savvy, a digital divide exists between younger and older members of this generation. A 2012 study found that only 13 percent of Boomers over 65 owned a smartphone, compared to 31 percent of Boomers aged 55-64.
This illustrates that while Boomers have always embraced new technology, they still have one foot in the analog world and one foot in digital. They recognize the importance of new technology, but older Boomers may not be as “connected” as younger Boomers.
Technology that supports health management and independent living will become particularly relevant as this generation ages. According to a USA TODAY survey, 75 percent of Boomers say they intend to live in their current home for the rest of their lives. They want to age in place without burdening their children and they will use technology to retain control of their lives and maintain their health.
A new definition of age
Along with a changing generation, we are also seeing changing views on how age is defined. This has particularly significant implications for healthcare providers.
When evaluating the age of older patients, the most common metric used is chronological age. However, chronological age alone doesn’t provide a complete picture of a patient’s behaviors, physical health and lifestyle.
“Functional age” takes all of these factors into account and presents a more comprehensive approach to assessing the needs of older patients. Functional age consists of three components:
- Chronological age
- Biological age, reflecting the patient’s physical health and genetic history
- Psychological age, including the patient’s mental state and attitudes
Classifying patients by functional age provides a more accurate measurement of a patient’s well-being and can also help to determine the patient’s level of independence and the type of personal services they require.
Functionally older Boomers are less independent. They are interested in alternative care services such as retail clinics and telehealth, but still value interaction with a physician and may need more frequent monitoring and one-on-one engagement.
Functionally younger Boomers are more independent. They are more likely to use remote monitoring and wearable devices, and they may prefer self-service programs that offer immediate access to information. These patients will seek healthcare services with an Amazon-like experience – consumer-driven and interactive with immediate access to information through apps and portals.
While many healthcare providers are already considering functional age as a barometer for making care decisions, others, including many specialty care providers , are still using a “one size fits all approach” to delivering care and services to patients based on chronological age alone. The diversity of technology adoption and wide range of personal needs that exist within this generation demonstrates the need for specialty providers to use functional age as a metric when determining the appropriate treatment options for older patients.
Changing roles for specialty care providers
All of the players in the healthcare continuum will need to adapt their services to better support Baby Boomers as they age – particularly specialty care providers because of the central role they play in connecting healthcare providers, drug manufacturers, payers and patients.
In order to succeed, specialty providers will need to adapt in the following ways:
1) Identify and adopt tools to assess the functional age of patients
Identifying the functional age of patients starts with an accurate assessment at patient intake. Assessment tools exist today, but are not widely used. Going forward, leading specialty providers will not only use such tools regularly with new patients, they will routinely monitor existing patients as well, ensuring that changes in functional age are taken into consideration throughout the care continuum.
2) Develop a continuum of services to meet the evolving needs of seniors
Once functional age is established, specialty providers will need to expand service offerings to better address seniors’ individual needs. As patients become functionally older, providers will need to shift to services that deliver more one-on-one engagement, such as counseling and care coordination via phone with a pharmacy technician or patient support representative.
3) Enhance patient care through advances in technology
In the coming years, new healthcare technologies such as robot companions, wearable/implantable medical devices, medicines with tracking sensors, and nursing home alternatives such as portable housing units and smart homes, will provide older patients with smarter, more intelligent care and will enable seniors to remain independent longer. Specialty providers will need to be early adopters of these technologies as they will be used to support adherence and appropriate medication use. Additionally, they will also be instrumental in sharing the data collected from these devices with providers and manufacturers.
Enhancing the future of senior care
The Baby Boomer generation has driven change throughout its lifetime and, as they age, they will challenge the existing stereotypes of frail, dependent seniors that are resistant to new ideas and advances in technology. These perceptions will need to shift in order to support a new generation of older adults and help them to manage complex diseases.
The “one-size-fits-all” approach to treating older patients is no longer adequate. By using functional age to determine a patient’s attitudes and level of independence, specialty care providers can continue to play a very relevant role and engage with their patients. However, they will need to evolve the patient experience they provide to build an adaptable, personalized experience that meets these patients where they are.
Nick Calla, RPH, is the Vice President, Industry Relations for Cardinal Health Specialty Solutions. His previous experience includes roles as Director of Clinical Programs and Network Administration for Eckerd Health Services and President and General Manager of Oncology Pathways, a group purchasing organization founded by the UPMC Cancer Center and Medmark Specialty Pharmacy. His expertise includes compliance, disease management and intervention programs. He received a Bachelor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Pittsburgh, a Juris Doctorate from Duquesne University and has completed fellowship programs at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California and Harvard University.