Why An Aging Population Means Healthcare Customer Experience Must Adapt

The aging population is the largest on record and the healthcare industry must adapt. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg


America is getting older, and the healthcare system is buckling under the pressure. The double whammy of people generally living longer and the massive Baby Boomer generation creating the “largest-ever population of older adults in America” has necessitated a level of experience innovation in the healthcare industry that simply has no precedent.  

Thankfully, there are a lot of brilliant minds working on a solution to this problem, identifying and addressing the needs of health consumers, medical providers and insurers all at once in order to create a smoother system for all.

In the final article of a three-part series, I interviewed three leaders in the healthcare industry for whom addressing the experience of the aging population is a top priority. 

Paul Irving is the Chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, a nonprofit think tank addressing the challenge of population aging. David Stewart is a founding partner of AGEIST, a company dedicated to promoting an understanding of a redefined life after 50. And Geeta Wilson is the founder and CEO of Consumer Society, an early-stage tech and experience design company building an enterprise experience management technology platform to connect all of the major industry players – insurance companies, healthcare professionals and consumers.

The first two parts of the series are Why Treating Patients As Consumers Can Improve The Healthcare Experience and As Healthcare Goes Digital, Consumer Engagement And Experience Improve.

This discussion centers around the aging population and the resulting increased demands on a healthcare system that is barely holding together an acceptable customer experience as it is. 

Dan Gingiss: What has changed with the aging population?

Paul Irving: With the largest-ever population of older adults in America and across the world and the prospect of longer lives ahead, we’re thinking in very new ways about life after 50. More and more of us are learning longer, working longer, contributing longer, and staying active in ways that would have been unimaginable in generations past.

Businesses are beginning to recognize that the story of 21st century aging is not just one of disease and decline. It’s also a story of innovation, human capital potential, and economic growth. Companies such as Best Buy, Philips, and Nestle are promoting new products and services as they focus on older consumers. Uber and Lyft are building age-friendly ride services to help health consumers and caregivers with transportation needs. Financial and health services for older adults are proliferating. New opportunities for lifelong learning and re-skilling are taking shape. Technology, digital services, and AI represent an exciting frontier for the aging demographic.

The consequences are inevitable, and exciting. Institutions will change, communities will change, families will change, and the culture will change. 

But in the midst of an unprecedented demographic shift and the changes that will follow, we must not forget those being left behind. Far too many Americans don’t enjoy the benefits of health, financial security, and a sense of purpose as they age. Without resources, skills, access, and too often, hope, the promise of longer life—the longevity dividend—is out of reach. We must not look away from them. The possibilities of longevity and the potential of our aging population cannot be fully realized until they are available to all.

Science has done its part. Medical advances, improved sanitation, and the decoding of the human genome have led to better health and better lives. Now it’s up to the rest of us to ensure that we realize and share the benefits of these advances. We can seek knowledge, contribute to multi-generational workplaces and communities, build new relationships, and find meaning and purpose through volunteering and service. But maybe most important, as we redefine what it means to be older, we can set examples for the next generation and do what we can to make sure that when our time does come, we’ve left the world a little better than we found it.

Gingiss: Why is the aging population important today?

David Stewart: The 50+ cohort controls 70% of consumer discretionary spending in the United States. These are not passive consumers; they come out of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when disruption of authority and the belief in individual agency was strong. They are often unwilling to accept the word of a medical expert at face value. Having lived through all manner of marketing, they have a built-in sense of skepticism and are more likely to comparison shop for value and for outcomes than their parents. These are not only the most highly empowered consumers in history, they are also the most discerning. 

Gingiss: What has changed with the aging population?

Stewart: The biggest difference today is the expectation of living longer. A woman at 50 has a reasonable chance of living another 40 or 50 years. This changes how these consumers behave, and importantly, what they expect from their lives going forward. It means they will be more open to new products and services as they feel they have a longer utility span for them. It also means that they will be less brand loyal than earlier generations at this point in their lives. 

An interesting finding from our research was that the average delta of actual to perceived age is 20 years. If someone at 50 feels like they are 30, some of their consuming actions will mimic those of a 30 year-old. 

Gingiss: How do aging consumers want to engage digitally?

Stewart: Just as the way in which people physically age differs greatly, consumers in this group have a range of digital skills. Mostly, these consumers are able and willing to adopt any technology they feel will be of benefit to them. That is not to say they are early adopters, but they will learn new skills within the bounds of their time and capability to do so. Most people are comfortable using apps on a smartphone.  

As people age, they naturally become more aware of their health, which with the advent of health monitoring devices and tele-health, is bringing another digital touch point to people’s lives. Voice-activated devices are another digital touchpoint gaining traction with the 50+ crowd, proving to be highly valuable to a range of consumers, including those with age-related vision issues.

Gingiss: How should we think about the aging population as it relates to health care?

Stewart: Perhaps healthcare should be seen through the lens of a consumer rather than a patient. The consumer is a self-empowered decision maker, vs. the patient who is the passive receiver of care. People today believe they have that capacity to make informed decisions, in a similar vein to how they make other purchasing decisions. 

We have found that treating people as intelligent informed adults, respecting the need for agency in their lives, gets better outcomes and a more positive view of the brand/company. Using this type of verbal and visual messaging, which frames this cohort as aspirational with attainable lifestyles, resonates up and down the age column. We know this as almost half of our readers [of the AGEIST Newsletter] are under 45. 

Using story-telling and understanding and appreciating the complexity of people as individuals, builds community and better outcomes – not just for consumers, but for the entire healthcare ecosystem. 

Gingiss: What is AGEIST doing about ageism?

Stewart: Rather than fight ageism, which only serves to victimize, how about we show North Star examples of how to live well at this age? Showing positive examples in a modern way, rather than painting our cohort as low capacity “patients in need,” goes a long way. 

Just as young people respond to North Star leading cultural figures in their lives, so do older people. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Kim Gordon and Laird Hamilton are examples. But this re-framing should not be limited to the famous, as it is even more important to illuminate the shinning North Stars hidden in plain sight all around us. 

It is simply showing how the modern 50+ cohort, people who feel they are at the peak of their powers, are actually living, and how life at that age can be lived. As helpful as data and regulations are, people are wired to respond to stories, and stories actually move the culture. 

There is a huge amount of existing messaging saying that at a certain age suddenly a range of things are no longer possible – learning, starting businesses, expanding a social circle or simply being healthy and active. We use stories to show how the existing narrative of age as a grim reality does not have to be true, and that we are capable of so much more for so much longer if we chose to take actions to make it happen. 

Gingiss: Is the aging population leading or following? In other words, will this population ultimately define the healthcare experience going forward for other generations, or will the younger generations do so?

Stewart: The idea of an older generation vs. younger generation defining health care going forward assumes there is a fundamental difference between the two generations. Both of them want good and frictionless healthcare. They both hunger for the best products and services. 

With the extreme elderly cohort there are perceptual disabilities for many, but this is not an impediment to a clever UX [user experience] designer. In general though, just as the iPhone is a hit with all ages because it is a great product, the same holds true for health care. 

No one likes opacity of services or pricing, and no one likes interminable wait times. Universally, consumers appreciate transparency, efficiency and positive outcomes. The older consumer is more frequently engaged in the healthcare system, but we should not be thinking about age-specific consumer experiences, we should be thinking about the very best for all consumers.

Geeta Wilson: Older adults are poised to shape consumer and healthcare experiences in the years ahead. At Consumer Society, we design experiences for specific segments and personas that have defining motivations, attitudes and behaviors, in addition to preferences and demographic characteristics. While all consumers’ needs are important, we think solving for the most complex demographic – with a chronic condition and an antagonistic attitude towards healthcare – will set the stage for all populations and their needs to be met. 

Gingiss: Is the healthcare system failing seniors today?

Wilson: The short answer is yes. While there have been gains in precision medicine, life sciences and medical treatments, the administration and navigation of health care as a system remains complex and confusing to all consumers. When you add to that population differences related to aging, chronic conditions, digital literacy and social determinants of health, the aging healthcare experience falls short.   

The industry is unprepared for a very different aging population that it has traditionally served in the past for the last 30+ years, commonly known as the “silent generation” which accepts a more passive approach to health and receives medical opinion and authority without question. 

The newer aging population will nearly double in size to about 80 million by 2030, and the industry is not prepared for unless it starts aggressively addressing some of the gaps in experience we are seeing today.

Gingiss: What must the healthcare industry do to relate to this population?

Wilson: Empower the consumer and their care circle to move from the passive experience of being a patient to the engaged and powerful experience of being a consumer. Just as Amazon has simplified the shopping experience and continues to amaze us with its logistical mastery of delivering anything with two days to your front door, technology effectively applied to the healthcare industry will transform the experience for the current population and set the stage for an industry to finally move up the Siegal+Gale Global Brand Simplicity Index

Baby Boomers spent the majority of their careers with healthcare that would be considered “Cadillac plans” today – with low co-pays and little to no deductibles. They are now faced with high-deductible plans or Medicare that requires 20% co-insurance. This population now must make decisions that impact out of pocket costs and quality of care, often deciding to defer procedures they cannot afford.  

The healthcare industry must simplify the language and consumer experience, and engage the population in new and creative ways to change ingrained behaviors that aggravate their multiple medical conditions. Simply providing medical brochures and instructional guides on how to live better is not going to work. 

Messaging and creative design will also need to be different than what was used in the past to address the elderly population. Compelling, authentic, relevant and inspirational messaging will be key. It will also be meaningful for healthcare to look beyond traditional mechanisms of health engagement and integrate total health experiences that add to individuals’ well-being, such as education, interests, work and food. 

Typically there are two extremes: artificially happy people skipping through life in parks and shopping malls, or degenerative people in wheelchairs and walking sticks burdened with illness and limitations. But that reality no longer resonates with today’s medical consumer. 

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