COVID-19 boosted senior tech literacy. Here’s how that affects Medicare Advantage

Seniors aren’t the technophobes that popular stereotypes suggest them to be — and in recent years, Medicare Advantage plans have begun to recognize that fact. Seniors’ growing tech-friendliness is, after all, well-documented. In 2019, AARP researchers found that 77 percent of seniors had smartphones, and nine out of ten adults aged 50 and older who own them use their smartphones daily.

The pandemic has accelerated seniors’ tech adoption even further, as at-risk elders turn to digital tools as a means to stay connected with their friends and family amid social distancing. According to one recent survey, 61 percent of Medicare-eligible seniors say that they have used technology more during the pandemic as a means to stay informed, communicate with friends and family, find entertainment, and access virtual healthcare.

But what does this increased tech-friendliness mean for Medicare Advantage? It seems likely that as seniors grow more accustomed to the convenient connectivity that their devices offer, they will expect their health plans to provide digitally-supported experiences.

Those of us in the industry have already begun to see the change. Now, members who had once been unwilling to engage via text or email are using both mediums to communicate. In the short span of a year, Covid-19 has compelled seniors to “catch up” on popular consumer technologies. Enrollees today have a better idea of how digital tools can underpin their health plan offerings — so, is it any wonder that they would begin asking for the support?

In turn, seniors’ increased interest in technology has accelerated the health plan sector’s shift towards digital solutions. Plans providers have fast-tracked their integration of offerings such as at-home monitoring, care engagement, and digital communications around benefit changes. As researchers for Deloitte wrote in a recent report on the matter:

“Before Covid-19, many MA plans were increasing their adoption of digital solutions, but some were further ahead than others. The pandemic accelerated digital delivery—both of benefits (care and medicine) and of enrollment. This acceleration was partially in response to consumer demand, but also due to health plan leaders realizing that technology is a good way to keep their members out of the physician’s office but still cared for.”

But what will these tech-savvy changes look like? Current trends indicate shifts happening across three broad categories: Digital communications, telemedicine, and predictive assessments.

Digital Communications
The digital communications bucket generally encompasses all tools and technologies used for marketing to, enrolling, onboarding, and communicating with current or potential plan enrollees. While nearly all health plans still facilitate some in-person, phone, and paper communications with their members, industry research indicates that consumer preferences have been shifting towards digital for a while.

In 2018, a HealthMine survey of 781 Medicare Advantage or Supplemental members found that 47 percent of all respondents preferred digital communication with their plan, compared to 34 percent who received communication digitally. The survey results demonstrated a higher preference for digital communication by younger-aged beneficiaries; however, the trend towards technology-facilitated messaging was evident even among older enrollees. The survey found that “of those aged 76-plus, 30 percent responded they received digital communication from their plan, with 43 percent preferring it.”

It seems reasonable to project that the continued press for digital communications will lead most health plans to make technology-facilitated interactions of equal priority with in-person, phone, and mail communications.

Telehealth’s near-revolutionary rise during Covid-19 has been the subject of hundreds, if not thousands, of articles since the onset of the pandemic.

According to recent research from analysts at, telemedicine usage leaped 300 percent among Medicare-eligible seniors between the pandemic’s American debut in March and the survey’s review in October. While only ten percent of surveyed respondents had used telemedicine before the pandemic, 44 percent said they had used telehealth during, and 43 percent said they plan to continue using digital health services after Covid-19 subsides.

These numbers suggest that once Covid-19 compelled seniors to try telehealth, they embraced it. Even before the pandemic, seniors’ reasons for adopting telehealth were clear. One Amwell survey conducted in 2019 found that 52 percent of Americans over the age of 65 were willing to use telehealth due to its “faster service,” “time savings and convenience,” “cost savings,” and “better access to healthcare professionals.

Many seniors like the experience of digitally-facilitated care — the tricky part was getting them to try it in the first place. Now that Covid-19 has compelled them to do so, it seems likely that Medicare Advantage enrollees will continue to ask for digital health experiences post-pandemic.

Predictive Assessments
The convenience that digitally-facilitated services can provide to enrollees is clear; however, benefits can also be reaped in-house. Tech-savvy health plans can use predictive analytics to assess patient well-being and facilitate support before a patient begins to experience emotionally- and financially-costly health events.

As Chris DeRienzo and Erica Kaitz noted in a 2019 article for Medical Economics, “Traditional prospective risk tools are driven by current risk and grounded in the heuristic, rule-based model that high-risk members today will be high-risk tomorrow. While adequately identifying persistently high-risk members, they fail to identify individuals who are low cost today and may seem ‘healthy,’ but will become high cost tomorrow.”

“It no longer has to be this way,” the pair stress. “Advances in technology-including predictive analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning-are making the dream of proactive care management a reality. […] Providers are able to match machine learning predictions that identify rising-risk patients with suggested actions that can be taken, then engage with and support them in proactively changing behaviors before they experience an acute episode.”

The potential benefits of such a proactive approach could be enormous for the patient, of course, but also for cost-aware, care-thoughtful health plans.

There is no doubt that seniors are more interested in digitally-supported plan offerings than ever due to the pandemic. Their growing interest will spark a sea change within the health insurance sector. Medicare Advantage providers need to get ahead of the tide by proactively considering what they can do to suit their enrollees’ new, tech-savvy preferences — now and in the future.

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