Jenifer Leaf Jaeger, MD, MPH, Senior Medical Director, HealthECSenior isolation is a health risk that affects at least a quarter of seniors over 65. It has become recognized over the past decade as a risk factor for poor aging outcomes including cognitive decline, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, hypertension, heart disease, impaired immune function, and even death.
Physical limitations, lack of transportation, and inadequate health literacy, among other social determinants of health (SDOH), further impair access to medical and mental health treatment and preventive care for older adults. These factors combine to increase the impact of chronic comorbidities and acute issues in our nation’s senior population.
COVID-19 exacerbates the negative impacts of social isolation. The consequent need for social distancing and reduced use of the healthcare system due to the risk of potential SARS-CoV-2 exposure are both important factors for seniors. Without timely medical attention, a minor illness or injury quickly deteriorates into a life-threatening situation. And without case management, chronic medical conditions worsen.
Among Medicare beneficiaries alone, social isolation is the source of $6.7 billion in additional healthcare costs annually. Preventing and addressing loneliness and social isolation are critically important goals for healthcare systems, communities, and national policy.
Organizations across the healthcare spectrum are taking a more holistic view of patients and the approaches used to connect the most vulnerable populations to the healthcare and community resources they need. To support that effort, technology is now available to facilitate analysis of the socioeconomic and environmental circumstances that adversely affect patient health and mitigate the negative impacts of social isolation.
Addressing Chronic Health Issues and SDOH
When we think about addressing chronic health issues and SDOH in older adults, it is usually after the fact, not focused on prevention. By the time a person has reached 65 years of age, they may already be suffering from the long-term effects of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension or heart disease. Access points to healthcare for older adults are often in the setting of post-acute care with limited attention to SDOH. The focus is almost wholly limited to the treatment and management of complications versus preventive measures.
Preventive outreach for older adults begins by focusing on health disparities and targeting patients at the highest risk. Attention must shift to care quality, utilization, and health outcomes through better care coordination and stronger data analytics. Population health management technology is the vehicle to drive this change.
Bimodal Outreach: Prevention and Follow-Up Interventions
Preventive care includes the identification of high-risk individuals. Once identified, essential steps of contact, outreach, assessment, determination, referral, and follow-up must occur. Actions are performed seamlessly within an organization’s workflows, with automated interventions and triggered alerts. And to establish a true community health record, available healthcare and community resources must be integrated to support these actions.
Social Support and Outreach through Technology
Though older adults are moving toward more digitally connected lives, many still face unique barriers to using and adopting new technologies. So how can we use technology to address the issues?
Provide education and training to improve health literacy and access, knowledge of care resources, and access points. Many hospitals and health systems offer day programs that teach seniors how to use a smartphone or tablet to access information and engage in preventive services. For example, connecting home monitoring devices such as digital blood pressure reading helps to keep people out of the ED.
Use population health and data analytics to identify high-risk patients. Determining which patients are at higher risk requires stratification at specific levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 hospitalizations rise with age, from approximately 12 per 100,000 people among those 65 to 74 years old, to 17 per 100,000 for those over 85. And those who recover often have difficulty returning to the same level of physical and mental ability. Predictive analytics tools can target various risk factors including:
– Recent ED visits or hospitalizations
– Presence of multiple chronic conditions
– Food insecurity, housing instability, lack of transportation, and other SDOH
– Frailty indices such as fall risk
With the capability to identify the top 10% or the top 1% of patients at highest risk, care management becomes more efficient and effective using integrated care coordination platforms to assist staff in conducting outreach and assessments. Efforts to support care coordination workflows are essential, especially with staffing cutbacks, COVID restrictions, and related factors.
Optimal Use of Care Coordination Tools
Training and education of the healthcare workforce is necessary to maximize the utility of care coordination tools. Users must understand all the capabilities and how to make the most of them. Care coordination technology simplifies workflows, allowing care managers to:
– Risk-stratify patient populations, identify gaps in care, and develop customized care coordination strategies by taking a holistic view of patient care.
– Target high-cost, high-risk patients for intervention and ensure that each patient receives the right level of care, at the right time and in the right setting.
– Emphasize prevention, patient self-management, continuity of care and communication between primary care providers, specialists and patients.
This approach helps to identify the resources needed to create community connections that older adults require. Data alone is insufficient. The most effective solution requires a combination of data analytics to identify patients at highest risk, business intelligence to generate interventions and alerts, and care management workflows to support outreach and interventions.
About Dr. Jenifer Leaf Jaeger
Dr. Jenifer Leaf Jaeger serves as the Senior Medical Director for HealthEC, a Best in KLAS population health and data analytics company. Jenifer provides clinical oversight to HealthEC’s population health management programs, now with a major focus on COVID-19. She functions at the intersection of healthcare policy, clinical care, and data analytics, translating knowledge into actionable insights for healthcare organizations to improve patient care and health outcomes at a reduced cost.
Prior to HealthEC, Jenifer served as Director, Infectious Disease Bureau and Population Health for the Boston Public Health Commission. She has previously held executive-level and advisory positions at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as academic positions at Harvard Medical School, Boston University School of Medicine, and the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.