Tech may help solve the health care workforce shortage as population ages

Rebecca Vesely

About Rebecca Vesely

Rebecca Vesely is AHCJ's topic leader on health information technology and a freelance writer. She has written about health, science and medicine for AFP, the Bay Area News Group, Modern Healthcare, Wired, Scientific American online and many other news outlets.

Photo: Jon Crel via Flickr

As many of us have been reporting for some time, an aging U.S. population and a growing shortage of health care workers are converging to create an access-to-care crisis over the next several decades. Can technology help fill the gap?

Some leading policy experts say yes, and are imploring tech entrepreneurs to get busy creating solutions. Sandra Hernandez, M.D. and chief executive officer of the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF), dedicated her keynote address to this topic at the recent 10th annual Health 2.0 conference in Santa Clara, Calif.

Health 2.0 is considered the premier national conference for developers in the digital health space. Oakland-based CHCF is a policy institution which also operates an innovation fund to provide seed money to promising companies.

“We are aging at a very, very dramatic pace,” Hernandez said during her keynote. “Yet we are chugging along providing a workforce the same way it was designed and built 50 years ago.”

Here are some stats on the growing “silver tsunami:”

  • By 2030, the U.S. population over age 65 will grow by 55 percent.
  • By 2030, there will be a shortfall of between 7,300 and 43,100 primary care physicians.
  • The median age of physicians and nurses is gradually inching up, meaning a wave of retirements in the coming years.
  • In just California, the number of seniors who have trouble caring for themselves will increase by 88 percent by 2030.
  • By 2030, at least a million seniors will need help with self-care such as cooking, bathing and cleaning in California alone.
  • Most people prefer to “age in place,” meaning they will require home care and retrofits to their homes.
  • The population will continue to become more diverse, requiring culturally and linguistically appropriate care for seniors.

So how can technology help solve these problems of shrinking healthccare workforce and an aging population? Here are few examples cited by Hernandez and others during Health 2.0:

  • Team-based care with technology support. An example is Quartet, a software platform that allows primary care and behavioral health providers to communicate and collaborate securely while also conducting population health management. The CHCF is an investor in Quartet.
  • Identifying and meeting patient social needs. Seven out of the 17 minutes in a primary care visit is spent on social needs, Hernandez says. Examples of services that help primary care providers address patient social needs include HealthLeads and using text messages to connect patients with appropriate community services such as food banks.
  • Tackling social issues that contribute to poor health in the elderly. Isolation and loneliness are significant drivers of mortality. Loneliness can have a negative impact on senior health equivalent to smoking 16 cigarettes per day, according to Robin Caruso, the first-ever chief togetherness officer at CareMore, a medical group and health plan based in California. CareMore screens its members for loneliness and then provides counseling and peer-to-peer virtual interactions. You can read more about the program here.
  • Voice-controlled smart personal assistants: Investors in digital health said at Health 2.0 that they see tremendous potential for Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Echo as platforms for at-home health care. Hands-free, voice-activated and relatively cheap, these systems can be used by providers to prompt patients to take their medications at specific times, transmit vital signs and conduct check-ins.

How are your local hospitals, health plans and physician groups incorporating technology to help providers meet the needs of their aging patients? As Hernandez said: “What we really need to do is think about simple innovations that are going to allow us to completely rethink the health care workforce of the future.”

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