How Aging Baby Boomers and Advancing Technology Represent Healthcare's Biggest Opportunity

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By 2020, an estimated 118 million Americans, or almost 40 percent of the country's population, will be older than 50. This generation moving into this next phase of life has embraced technology and believes in its ability to help keep all of them healthy and living independently as they age.

However, the vast majority believes technology could be better developed to keep people healthy at home, according to a study conducted by the Global Social Enterprise Initiative at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and Philips.

The survey results are based on responses from a sample of 1,200 Americans aged 34 to 67, weighted to reflect a nationally representative profile of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) and GenX-ers (those born between 1965 and 1976).

Unsurprisingly, a clear majority (73 percent) of all respondents declared a preference for aging at home, and almost all (more than 90 percent) said being independent and having access to quality healthcare would be important to them when they reach retirement.

Technology could be the answer to keeping tomorrow's seniors healthy and at home, and out of the hospital. This generation is significantly more tech-savvy than their parents, the nation's current seniors. According to a Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life survey conducted in 2013 and cited within the survey results, only 18 percent of those older than 65 use a smartphone, and just more than half (56 percent) use the Internet. Of the respondents to the GSEI survey, just 9 percent believe their parents are adept at using technology, and 40 percent believe using technology is too difficult for their parents.

In contrast, baby boomers and GenX-ers use technology much more frequently. Nearly seven out of ten respondents (69 percent) report a high level of comfort with technology. The level of comfort increased among younger respondents, with 75 percent of GenX-ers reporting a high level of comfort, as compared with 62 percent of "leading edge" baby boomers, or those born before 1955.

Not only can this generation use technology, they want to, especially to keep themselves healthy and independent. Two-thirds (67 percent) of both baby boomer and GenX respondents said they would be willing to spend between $25 and $499 per month on technology if it would help keep them at home as they age, and 13 percent said they'd spend more than $500 per month for such technology.

These results reveal a huge opportunity for the healthcare industry, says Bill Novelli, a professor at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business in Washington, D.C., and member of the Philips Aging Well Think Tank.

"Older people are far bigger consumers of healthcare than younger people," he says, and an uptick in both outpatient procedures and the number of hospital "frequent fliers" will put a burden on the healthcare system. Technology, including remote monitoring, telehealth services and other advances could be beneficial both to this upcoming generation of tech-savvy seniors and a struggling healthcare system. "It can help people age better, consume healthcare services better and be healthier in general," he says.

However, the technology may not have caught up with consumer demand. A full 95 percent of survey respondents said the technology available today for helping seniors stay in their homes could be better. There are also lingering concerns about cost, access, privacy and regulation with regards to technology entering the market, says Mr. Novelli.  

"That said, I feel very optimistic about technology companies rising to the occasion," he says. However, policy changes to realign reimbursements and regulatory structures that encourage innovation are needed to allow technology to fully take hold within the healthcare industry. Mr. Novelli is not as optimistic the policy will keep pace with the technology. "It will become a question of the technology industry and the healthcare system not waiting for policy to catch up," he says, and for healthcare providers to do what they can to educate older patients about available technology and how it can help keep them healthy at home.

"The healthcare industry will have to respond to the current situation, and the aging generation behind them," says Mr. Novelli. "This is an enormous issue — there's not a bigger one in healthcare."

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