Industry Voices—Empowering family caregivers to drive better outcomes

Family caregivers are overworked and overwhelmed. Yet, they have the power to drive better health outcomes. (Toa55/Getty Images)

There is an unseen force in healthcare providing unpaid services valued at over $470 billion.

That number is only going up, and the unmet needs of these unpaid workers are only increasing as well.

Family caregivers are hidden navigators of healthcare and support for health plan members. They are overworked and overwhelmed. They are often isolated or ignored. Yet, they have the power to drive better health outcomes and create a vital bridge between members and payers.

By the end of this decade, one in five people in the U.S. will be over 65. Not long after that, people aged 65+ will outnumber children. Experts on aging expect almost 70% of Americans turning 65 will need additional care services and support. At the same time, 76% of people over 50 want to age in place.

While senior living options abound, many seniors do not have the financial means for assisted living or in-home care. Plus, Medicare only covers acute, short-term visits, usually after an incident or surgery. Couple that with a shortage in healthcare workers, especially home health professionals and other forms of paid caregivers, and there is a gap of worrying proportions.

Increasingly, as people age, they rely on friends and family for support. This can range from daily, basic needs (like shopping, transportation to and from medical appointments, cooking, cleaning and going to the bathroom) to more complex and long-term planning tasks (like establishing a Power of Attorney and advance care planning, finding appropriate care and financial planning).

Caregiving can be fulfilling and rewarding. Nothing is more personal or loving than caring for another person. However, many caregivers also feel stressed and emotionally and financially burdened. They may neglect their own health and wellness needs to prioritize the needs of their loved ones.

If we focus on creating confident caregivers through personalized support, we can positively impact their lives and the lives of the people in their care.

Helping caregivers is an outcomes improvement strategy

Social structures—the support of family and friends—are a fundamental social determinant of health with tangible impact. Members stay healthier when they have family caregivers administering medications and reinforcing healthy condition management practices. Members with family caregivers are 30% less likely to use the emergency room and have a 50% lower use of the hospital overall; when they are hospitalized, their length of stay is 13 days shorter.

Family caregivers are a vital link between payers and their members. They are instrumental in navigating access to care, influencing member decisions, improving member safety and overcoming barriers to member compliance. Fostering a relationship of trust with caregivers—guiding them to a better understanding of their loved ones’ care needs and coaching them in managing those needs—can be a powerful strategy for improving health outcomes in aging seniors and managing chronic conditions.

But their effectiveness in that role is not a given. Caregivers need reliable information, resources, coaching and—most importantly—support as they navigate their loved ones’ health journeys. When viewed as partners in a care journey and key collaborators in whole-person care, they can be more effective in their caregiving responsibilities. Their confidence, resilience and capacity to care determine their own health and the continued well-being of their loved one.

Addressing health equity by empowering caregivers

Caregivers are members’ navigators to access to care and support—and they need support themselves. However, this cannot be a blanket statement. As we better understand the impact of social determinants of health and come to terms with health equity issues, we have to acknowledge that caregiving impacts different communities differently. As a result, we need to be nimble enough in our support of caregivers to connect each one with solutions that are appreciative of their life context.

In a society oriented toward straight white people, we need to recognize that nearly half of caregivers today are people of color and/or part of the LGBTQ+ community. Everyone has a different experience with healthcare, and there are different obstacles to health that members and their caregivers must overcome.

Programs that empower caregivers make it possible to close gaps, target specific outcomes, overcome barriers and achieve better access to care. By reaching caregivers in all communities with needed support and tangible strategies to care confidently for their loved ones, we can establish trust, uncover additional needs and barriers and offer simple—and highly effective—strategies for improvement.

Family caregivers are sustaining our health system. When we create a support structure for them to be engaged and empowered, we all benefit.

Shara Cohen is the CEO of Carallel.