How Technology Is Unifying Senior Care Communities In the COVID-19 Era

Grandparents, Outdoors, Snuggling

By Fahad Aziz, co-founder and CTO, Caremerge.

Tech innovations are improving senior care by breaking down data and communication silos. That’s important in normal times and infinitely more so during times of crisis, when clear, timely communication and flexible access to care become crucial to the health and well-being of senior care residents, staff, and family members.

Here’s a look at how four key technology innovations are improving senior care and how the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting strengths and shortcomings that fly under the radar during normal times.

1: Healthcare Systems that Talk to Each Other

A lot of senior living communities are excellent at delivering care but struggle with managing communications. And it’s no wonder: when you’re juggling multiple communication points for health records, medication administration, and communication (with staff, residents, and family members), it’s hard to keep everyone updated in ways that are both timely and HIPAA compliant.

That can be a pain point in the best of times; during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be dangerous.

High-risk residents may not be adequately isolated from social events, for example, if staff don’t see EHR updates in a timely fashion. Or a family member might miss an email about lockdown and visit a resident’s direct entrance, risking the spread of pathogens.

The good news is that technology that consolidates EHR, eMAR, and messaging into a single platform can streamline communications and eliminate the risks that result from missed messages and mixed signals. And these platforms don’t have to come with a months-long onboarding process; as part of our response to the current pandemic, we launched 280 communities onto our platform in just 10 days.

2: More Efficient Staff-to-Staff Communication

Too often, retirement community staff spend time documenting, reviewing, and tracking down messages from other shifts that they’d rather spend interacting with residents. Digital staff-to-staff communication platforms can eliminate that problem by facilitating communication.

For example, mobile apps can show highlights from a previous shift, including anything unusual or that requires attention. And because such apps are HIPAA-compliant and accessible from mobile devices, staff members can view key information before starting a shift, meaning they can hit the ground running each day – particularly important during crises, when policies and procedures might change from shift to shift.

Another key benefit of digital communication platforms is that they help ensure staff are accessible in case of an emergency, which can help keep everyone in a community healthy and safe. And because this tech makes it possible for messages to be conveyed fast, from anywhere, it helps reduce the total amount of time workers spend on communications and therefore maintain work-life balance.

3: Faster, More Secure Communication with Families

Prior to communication apps designed for senior living communities, communicating with residents’ families was a time-consuming and often inefficient task. Family members who hadn’t heard from their loved ones in a few days had few choices but to call or email the community, and fielding and responding to these messages could take hours.

Family communication apps have transformed that reality. Today, senior living staff can send secure, HIPAA-compliant messages to family members from tablets and smartphones. Family members can stay tuned in to the life of the community via the app’s activity feed and monitor their loved ones’ activities via attendance data to know they’re safe and sound.

The time savings alone can be transformative for staff. Family members are often grateful for the insight into their loved ones’ daily lives and find that this day-to-day information lets them have more meaningful conversations that deepen their relationships.

In a crisis, the value of the secure communications app increases dramatically. In the best of times, a lack of information between senior living communities and residents’ families creates stress, anxiety, and confusion; in a crisis, it can cause panic. That’s doubly true when the crisis in question poses a particular threat to residents of senior living communities.

Because communication apps let staff distribute messaging quickly, to large groups, they’re ideal for situations like the one we currently find ourselves in. Family members know that even when information, policies, and procedures are evolving rapidly, they’ll receive updates in a timely manner, straight to their pockets. Community leaders can focus on caring for their residents rather than manning the phones. 

4: Easier-to-Access Resources for Residents

While relatively new to the senior living scene, smart speakers have already proven valuable resident communication tools. Residents can ask devices about the weather, planned community activities, and even the day’s menu. This is helpful for those with memory loss, reduced mobility, and vision impairment in particular; early research also shows that voice assistants can reduce feelings of loneliness among residents.

Innovations during the COVID-19 outbreak show that this tech has even more potential to serve senior living residents. For example, we’ve introduced a skill to the Caremerge app that lets residents say, “Alexa, what is the coronavirus update at my community?” and immediately get any updates the community has.

This not only improves understanding and peace of mind for residents; it also reduces calls to the front desk, which helps limit the workload for staff.

Our current outbreak also highlights the potential – and current limitations – of voice-enabled tech. For example, we’re seeing that more residents want to use this tech to access their health data, get updates on their medications, manage appointments, and learn about any changes in their care plans. 

The bright side here is there are currently HIPAA-compliant skills available for Alexa. This means that we have the capability to transmit medical records digitally, so that they’re accessible via voice assistants. Developing and implementing that technology will be primarily a matter of will.

Senior Living Tech: Promising Improvements with Room to Grow

The technology available to senior living communities today has enabled significant improvement in internal and external communications as well as methods of care delivery. But this is very much an evolving space. Further developments could make residents’ experiences, especially during times of crisis, more convenient and safer.

While COVID-19 has wrought havoc on the world, my hope is that it also highlights areas where updating current applications and systems could have a significant positive impact on the millions of Americans who live in, work in, or have loved ones in senior living communities.

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