It’s easy to see why a majority of older voters point to health care as their top concern, with nearly a third ranking it as more important than the economy, immigration, national security and their personal financial situation.
Over 60% of older adults are managing two or more chronic conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, and nearly a third of older adults live alone, with that percentage increasing as they age. Without the support they need, many of these individuals struggle to make it to their doctor regularly, pay for medication or stick to their treatment plan.
Many people point to technology as the solution that will bridge such care gaps and improve these individuals’ health and quality of life. But as the founder of a healthcare technology startup myself, I worry that these same people may lose sight of the patients their technology is meant to serve — of the human beings on the other side of the screen.
With this in mind, I’d like to share three of our members’ stories*, each of which exemplifies the sorts of health care gaps an older adult can fall into and each of which shows the power of empathy and thoughtfulness on the part of doctors, nurses and other caregivers.
The power of one word: Mona’s story
Mona, a 73-year-old widow, was referred to us by her doctor after being diagnosed with high blood pressure. She was given a blood pressure machine to use at home so that our clinical team could monitor her readings, and we called to check in with her once a week to see how she was progressing. Mona had also been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and as we could see from her blood pressure readings, this news was causing her a lot of stress.
One day, during a routine call with one of our medical assistants, Mona burst into tears. At a recent clinic visit, Mona’s doctor had seen her high blood pressure readings and, though he’d praised her effort, he’d warned her that if she didn’t get her “hypertension” under control, she could face a serious health problem like a heart attack or stroke. As Mona put it on the phone, she couldn’t believe that she was facing yet another life-changing diagnosis: first Parkinsons, then high blood pressure, now “hypertension.”
What Mona did not understand, and what her doctor had not thought he needed to explain, was that “hypertension” is the same thing as “high blood pressure.” After our medical assistant reassured her, we saw her stress level — and, accordingly, her blood pressure — drop significantly.
Mona’s story shows that we can never take health literacy for granted, and that there is no substitute for taking the time to answer members’ questions and explain health basics in a clear, digestible and straightforward way. Every word we choose matters.
The true cost of a prescription: Nancy’s story
We met Nancy, a 75-year-old mother of five, after she was referred to us with uncontrolled type 2 diabetes and hypertension. She was also suffering from dementia after a recent stroke and was frequently recording blood glucose readings of close to 500 mg/dL — an extremely high level that would frequently put her in the emergency room.
After speaking with her daughter, our team realized that Nancy was not taking her medications as prescribed. But it wasn’t forgetfulness or bad habits that kept her from sticking to her treatment plan. Nancy simply couldn’t afford one of the oral blood glucose control agents her doctor had prescribed.
We reached out to Nancy’s doctor (who’d been completely unaware of this) on her behalf and were able to have a new prescription sent for an alternative medication that was covered by Nancy’s insurance. Thankfully, with the help of this medication, Nancy’s blood sugar soon leveled off — but her story has lingered in my mind.
What if no one had been watching? What if no one had thought to take a closer look to see what was causing her high readings? Would Nancy be back at the emergency room? How many more Nancys are out there?
Hidden pain: Harold’s story
Some months after we started monitoring his blood pressure, Harold, a 65-year-old mynurse.ai member with hypertension and HIV, reached out to us for help. He didn’t give us specifics, but kept things vague at first, almost as if asking for a friend. He needed information on coping with stress, he said. Stress that had come as a result of elder abuse.
Our medical assistants were shocked. They’d spent months talking with Harold about his health and his progress as he’d worked to control his blood pressure. Harold lived alone, with few friends or family, and it shook us all to learn that he’d been facing such a traumatic situation with no support.
We answered Harold’s questions, assuring him that we were there to listen, that we were on his side. Slowly, Harold revealed that he had suffered multiple instances of physical abuse from a tenant in his home over the last year.
Harold had not reported the abuse at first because he feared retaliation by the abuser, but thanks to the trust and rapport he’d built with our medical assistants, Harold found the confidence he needed to finally take action.
Again, I wonder: How many Harolds are out there, on their own, wondering when someone will notice their pain? How many patients does the average doctor see who are in the same sort of crisis — the sort that won’t show up on any scan or blood test?
From my experience in the startup space, I can say with confidence that despite the hype around healthcare technology, apps and artificial intelligence, there is no substitute for a human touch. Doctors, nurses, engineers and tech-junkies of all ages must remember that technology is a tool, meant to serve.
What older adults with health challenges really need is not a watch that tracks their steps or heartbeat. What they really need is for someone to be there for them, if not in person then at least on the other side of the screen. They need someone who can see the human being beyond the data, beyond the numbers. They’re searching for someone who cares.
* All names and some minor details have been changed to respect member privacy