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mHealth’s Missing Link: Technology That Helps the Caregiver

A recent study finds that many mHealth platforms for seniors are failing to gain traction because they don't pay attention to the caregiver's needs.

By Eric Wicklund

- A recent study finds that more than 70 percent of family and friends providing care to a loved one at home are interested in using mHealth technology to support their caregiving tasks, and roughly 60 percent would use whatever’s available now. But only 7 percent are actually using it.

This disconnect is often seen as a missing link in developing mHealth for the senior population – and a missed opportunity to reach what’s expected to be 45 million Americans caring for some 117 million people by 2020.

“That amounts to a very big unmet need,” says Laura Pugliese, deputy director of innovation research for HITLAB, a New York-based healthcare innovation lab that conducted the study, “and a market that’s only going to keep on growing.”

With more and more seniors (a growing population as well) wanting to stay at home and stay active longer, the mHealth industry has been responding with a wide variety of solutions, including modified personal emergency response systems (PERS), smart devices at home, home monitoring platforms that connect the senior to a care team and even social media platforms that enable the senior to connect with friends and family more frequently.

But these seniors aren’t doing it all themselves, and very often rely on family members and friends to help them with tasks. The HITLAB study, supported by the AARP’s Project Catalyst team, comprised of Pfizer, UnitedHealthcare, MedStar Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that caregivers would benefit greatly from mHealth platforms that include them in the loop, enabling them to help with medication adherence, scheduling and daily care management.

According to Pugliese, past surveys focused on online services for seniors at home, and didn’t notice any trends emerging with caregivers. That’s changed, she said, as the market develops more “peace-of-mind” technologies, or platforms that give friends and family some assurance that their loved one is doing OK at home.

“What this amounts to is caregivers want technology that untethers them from being at the immediate side of their loved ones by ensuring access to everything they could observe while being in the same room or within earshot,” the report says. “They often feel the need to have someone with their loved one 24/7, just in case anything happens.”

The problem, says Pugliese, is that caregivers don’t know what’s available, and the mHealth industry hasn’t spent a lot of time developing solutions with the caregiver in mind. A medication management app might help the senior keep track of his or her medications, for instance, but it doesn’t loop in the caregiver to help keep track.

Other barriers, the study reports, include cost, the perception that the technology won’t offer any improvement over current methods, a belief that current technology is too complex for seniors to install and use, and a belief that the technology is too impersonal to appeal to seniors.

Pugliese sees the HITLAB study as a “call to action for mHealth.” It urges entrepreneurs and the healthcare industry to create senior care platforms that preserve independence while enabling caregivers to be part of the process.

Other suggestions include developing platforms that address multiple needs, rather than requiring seniors and caregivers to seek out a separate device or app for each function. And create platforms that establish trust and comfort. For caregivers, that might include access to professionals, personalized guidance from trusted sources and access to reviews and ratings.

“A lot of the products on the market now haven’t been designed with the end-user in mind,” says Pugliese. And with senior care, one has to understand that it’s not just about the senior.

Dig Deeper:

mHealth and Seniors: ATA to Shine a Light on Home-Based Monitoring

Using Telehealth to Care for the Caregiver



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