AARP: Consumer has to be at the center of product development and testing for digital health

The work to initiate the AARP’s digital health initiative Project Catalyst to set up a way for seniors to roadtest wearables and apps in a series of studies was a year in the making. It evolved from the AARP’s Health Innovation@50+ LivePitch challenges in which entrepreneurs pitch products aimed at the needs of AARP members […]

The work to initiate the AARP’s digital health initiative Project Catalyst to set up a way for seniors to roadtest wearables and apps in a series of studies was a year in the making. It evolved from the AARP’s Health Innovation@50+ LivePitch challenges in which entrepreneurs pitch products aimed at the needs of AARP members aged 50 and older.

In a phone interview with Jody Holtzman, senior vice president of thought leadership at AARP,  he said the idea was to give more access to digital health technology to the people who would be using it and get them to share their feedback. “We have received incredibly positive feedback for [Innovation@50+ LivePitch] but we wanted to figure out how can we get the voice of the consumer more prominent in the thinking of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. One year ago we decided to do more formal research focused on the nine areas we identified in our health innovation work and six months ago we decided to give it a shot.”

He added: “The key message here is that the consumer has to be at the center of product development and product testing. There’s not enough of it. We want to see more of it, more user friendly, more innovative [digital health] products and if we can add more value then that’s worth it.”

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UnitedHealthcare and Pfizer are both sponsors, but Holtzman said the group is in talks with other companies about adding more sponsors to the project.

Pfizer Vice President of Worldwide Innovation Wendy Mayer explained in emailed responses to questions that it has invested in health IT companies with solutions to help patients adhere to care plans such as Keas, Private Access and Acacia Living through its venture arm.

“With Project Catalyst, Pfizer has the unique opportunity to help inform the design of future products that could potentially be used to monitor and manage the health of many of our patients. The collaboration aspect of this project is unique and highly beneficial in helping to learn more about the changing dynamics of healthcare and the role of new technologies. Innovative solutions often impact multiple aspects of the healthcare system – the consumer, the provider, the payer, the pharma company. It is often difficult to fully assess these new offerings and ideas when looking at it from the perspective of just one of these stakeholders – in our case the pharma company. Being able to partner with other influential stakeholders creates a more well- rounded perspective on the problems and the solutions, and helps address more of the barriers to experimenting with new approaches.

The nine areas flagged up in the AARP’s Health Innovation Frontiers report published in 2013 included physical fitness so that’s one reason the decision was made to start with activity trackers and sleep trackers in particular. Another factor is the diversity of devices. Six devices were selected with the idea to get a wide selection of companies involved. It also wanted to include devices that are popular.

Holtzman sees the range of technical ability as being a more decisive factor than, say, age among the 100 million people who make up the 50+ demographic. Whether study participants find these devices easy to use will say more about the consumer friendliness and how well the devices are designed than anything else.

A critical part of the program will be the report that follows the six-week study. In it, Georgia Tech researchers will highlight which features seniors found easiest to use and what they found difficult. The goal is to produce a report that’s a source of valuable insight for entrepreneurs as to what makes good design for seniors and to help other entrepreneurs avoid their mistakes. Although none of the companies with devices in the study can expect an endorsement — the study will refrain from saying which devices seniors used easily, for example, they’ll receive an indirect one if their recognizable technology features are well received by the study participants.

Depending on how things go with the first study, Holtzman said the next one will probably focus on medication adherence — an enormous area of interest to payers, providers and pharmaceutical companies and the source of significant costs.

Although Holtzman said AARP would like to do studies that reflect each of the nine areas of need for seniors, it is too early to say whether that will happen. “We would love to see these studies done in each of the nine categories, but the reality is it is a learning experience for all of us on many levels. How we work together, how we create a vehicle like this to ensure that we get value-add and increase value is a new experience for all of us on many levels and we hope it will be a positive one.”

As an example of the shift in investor and entrepreneur interests in the needs of seniors, Holtzman pointed to the recent launch of Honor, a digital health startup whose founders represent the top shelf of Silicon Valley companies.

From Holtzman’s point of view, one of the keys to ensuring sustained interest by entrepreneurs in the senior space is to get venture capitalists and market commentators to see that it’s more than just creating one offs. Companies like Honor illustrate the wider interest in starting companies specifically to respond to the needs of seniors and the growing recognition that they’re investment worthy.

Still, even if companies succeed in developing a device that is easy for seniors to use, they face a more mundane challenge encountered in other age groups which may prove even more difficult to solve: getting consumers to use their devices long-term.

Update: This story has been dated from an earlier version.