The Intersection Of Healthcare And Aging-In-Place

For many years now, Forrester has been tracking a market we call healthcare unbound (sometimes also called remote monitoring or connected health). These are technologies and services that consumers and caregivers can use to track, manage, and improve health conditions outside of the traditional institutional walls of healthcare. It’s an interesting market to observe — filled with solutions that promise to address real health problems, boost consumers’ engagement and self-awareness, and ultimately save costs while improving quality of life.  What’s not to like?

Well, watching this market is a little like watching a snail race — or paint dry. Despite efforts to advance industry collaboration by groups such as Continua, and new ventures by tech-industry behemoths such as Intel and GE, there has been very little actual movement in this market. Consumers remain largely ignorant about healthcare-unbound solutions, and players have struggled to find the right confluence of need, willingness to pay, and infrastructure that will let these products and services flourish.

Recently, however, I’ve sensed a shift in the energy in this market — a revitalization, if you will. This can be partly attributed to the inexorable aging of baby boomers, and partly to the realization that the current healthcare and retirement funding systems are crumbling under their own weight. But I think it’s also due to an infusion of fresh thinking and a recognition that this market isn’t as straightforward as many once believed.

The shift in thinking took off when my former colleague and founder of Aging In Place Technology Watch, Laurie Orlov, proposed that there are four key pillars to aging in place: health, safety, connectivity (to friends and family members), and contribution (a senior’s ability to engage in the world in a way that is meaningful to her). Building off of the work of Coughlin and Lau at the MIT AgeLab, this expanded many people’s thinking, beyond the obvious health and safety needs that enable seniors to age in place, to look at the whole person and his psychological needs as well.

I take it one step further. If we group health and safety into one bucket (call it, needs), then we can group connectivity and contribution into another bucket (call it, wants). What’s interesting here is that in the minds of consumers, needs trump wants. Unlike Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where a person will only focus on her desires for self-actualization after her basic needs for food and shelter are met, consumers in the age-in-place market seem to be willing to engage with what they need only if they have some want to strive for. In other words, for aging-in-place, it doesn’t matter if a consumer can get out of bed in the morning if he doesn’t also want to do it!

This shift in thinking has a profound effect on how age-in-place solution providers craft and market their products and services. To get the consumer’s attention and interest (and, ultimately, dollars), the solution has to enable a want — or at least offer an experience that is more focused on want than need. Solutions that are solely need-focused will continue to struggle against the tide of consumer apathy, no matter how empirically “good” they may seem. This also puts customer experience front and center in the success or failure of the aging-in-place market.