Tech leaders say digital health can help build trust, address health equity among Medicare patients

There is a prevailing idea that only younger consumers and the "worried well" thrive on the use of technology.

But digital health companies making inroads with older patients are dispelling this idea as a myth, as they see rapidly rising demand for tech tools among the Medicare population.

Among all Medicare beneficiaries, 52% received telemedicine care through the end of 2020, according to data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The use of telehealth escalated in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and drove a shift in behavior among older patients, executives say.

"I remember a CMO of a very large national plan telling me that texting and technology were for millennials. I said, 'Well, my great aunt texts more than me.' I really believe that, especially with COVID, there is this wonderful opportunity to bring virtual care into folks’ homes and there is a real demand for it," said Julia Hu, CEO and co-founder of Lark Health.

Hu's company helps people prevent and manage chronic conditions through an AI-powered platform.

A recent study commissioned by Lark Health found that adults over the age of 65 are more engaged with digital coaching platforms than younger adults are. "It was close to 25% more engaged. And, it led to better outcomes," Hu said. "Digital coaching allows for real connection and in a much more scalable fashion."

Hu spoke on a panel at this week's virtual summit hosted by Fierce Health Payer, where she was joined by Caitlin Donovan, global health of Uber Health, Jon Bloom, M.D., CEO of Podimetrics and Meghan Joyce, chief operating officer and executive vice president of platform at Oscar. The panelists discussed how Medicare Advantage plans are adapting to the shift to digital to meet the needs of MA members.


Joyce said technology and digital health tools can play a critical role in engaging MA members in their own care.

"I think of the old Steve Jobs adage: 'If you ask people what they are looking for, they never would have described a smartphone. But it turns out, that’s what they needed all along.' Ask MA members what they are looking for in their healthcare or health plan experience, I don’t think many of them would say, 'I’d really like a digital health option.' But it turns out, you can use technology to advance a lot of their core objectives even more effectively," Joyce said.

She added, "When I think about what it takes to do Medicare Advantage well, it's not just access to high-quality, affordable care but it’s also deep engagement with the member and ensuring they get the care they need when they need it. There is ample opportunity for technology to enhance this space, and now is the moment when this population is actually turning to technology more than ever."

Podimetrics, launched in 2011, is a care management company that developed a solution to help prevent diabetic foot ulcers, one of the most debilitating and costly complications of diabetes. The company's care model is designed around preventing foot amputations as a complication of diabetes. But a technology that helps prevent ER visits and hospitalizations doesn't fit easily into hospitals' fee-for-service payment models, Bloom said.

MA plans, which focus on complex patients, are now a viable place for a "prevention play," he said. "It’s this alignment of incentives that enable companies like ours to have a place to fit in."

RELATED: Execs say the momentum around Medicare Advantage creates a hotbed for innovation

At the same time, digital health companies can help address health equity challenges among the MA population.

"The patient we care for is a very complex patient, often overwhelmed by their care. We had to figure out how to keep it simple. It’s a marriage of technology and people. It’s largely rural patients and minority populations so there are gaps in health and tech literacy. So we pair technology with a human touch. We found that marriage has been a real secret sauce to working with these patients," he said.

Bloom added that technology enables providers to get care to underserved populations.

"The exciting part of Medicare Advantage is that it is enabling companies with these technologies to get into patients’ homes and really drive better outcomes," he said.

Technology also can be a powerful lever to build patients' trust in their health plans and healthcare providers, Joyce said.

"I think when it comes to a truly differentiated experience in healthcare, one of the most important things is trust," she said. "Technology can help to identify the correct health information and surface it in timely, reliable ways and can help ensure that when care delivery providers are with the patient, they can be there for them, and not having to think about the administrative work and paperwork that is taking up far too much time. And, you can surround members and patients with a truly supportive infrastructure and scaffolding, so that every step along the way, they are supported."

RELATED: How Optum's HouseCalls pivoted to virtual when houses couldn't be visited during the pandemic

She added, "You can drive genuine trust and that, ultimately, is not only going to help your organization differentiate itself in a crowded space but help to deliver truly excellent and superior healthcare outcomes, affordability and excellent results."

At Uber Health, the ride-sharing platform’s health branch, executives are focused on leveraging the platform to not only provide patients rides to and from medical appointments but also how to get things that patients need, like medications or insulin, to them at their homes, Donovan said.

"What I come across quite a bit is members don’t know how to coordinate their own care. And when you add the number of complex conditions that the majority of MA members have, it's about making it really easy to know, here’s exactly what I do, here’s the next step, and having that connection with providers, caregivers and health plans becomes really important. The only way to scale that is with technology," she said.

Technology also can help scale the reach of care managers and population health managers to reach the "exception to the rule" when an intervention is needed, Donovan said.

"When I think about the potential for technology in this space, I think about bringing out the best in both technology and the very necessary and critical humans who bring the healthcare system to life," Joyce said. "Many other industries have seen how technology allows them to transform. That transformation has been all too long in coming in the healthcare ecosystem and one that’s overdue."