MedCity Influencers, Patient Engagement

Aging has been very good for business.  But can we honestly say business been good for aging?

Private markets see significant opportunity in supporting Americans through their senior years, but from a human perspective, the business of aging too often falls short of delivering solutions that meet fundamental societal needs.

The business of aging has undeniably been a story of great financial success. Each year, Americans spend billions of dollars in the hopes of improving their experience of aging. This expenditure comes in the form of senior living facilities, cosmetic solutions to delay the effects of aging, health care services and pharmaceutical products to keep patients alive longer and healthier, and financial products to help support people through retirement.

Private markets see significant opportunity in supporting Americans through their senior years—and billions of dollars in venture capital and private equity are flowing to enterprises with the stated intent of helping Americans live better, longer. And, on the surface, they are—new medicines, new health plan products, and new retirement concepts are being hatched every day.

But when you look deep within, from a human perspective, the business of aging too often falls short of delivering solutions that meet fundamental societal needs. Aging has been good for business, but can we honestly say that business has been good for aging?

Any of us who has walked a parent through our disjointed healthcare system knows that the industry is failing miserably at delivering what patients and families need in their last years of life. We have new drugs and therapeutics to help patients live longer and better, but deliver these through a broken business model that increasingly puts life-sustaining medicines out of reach for the very patients that need them. We perfect procedures to treat some of the most complex infirmities, but struggle when it comes to keeping people out of the hospital in the first place. We push the frontier in the science of extending life, but come up sorely lacking when it comes to living an extended life with dignity.

Business school case studies remind us of the importance of walking in the shoes of our customers to unlock the power of their perspective.  However, many who drive the business of aging do so with their own imagined future wants in mind, rather than today’s seniors’ needs. They tend to apply heuristics that are appropriate for the median American consumer but have little place in our consideration of senior care. They forget that seniors, particularly those who are frail, sick or incapacitated, do not necessarily want to shop for services like millennials do—in reality, these seniors are just looking to be treated with dignity and respect, receiving the best care that science can deliver.

They believe that most seniors have life trajectories and financial income profiles that are far different than the more modest lifestyles lived by most Americans. And they all too often believe that seniors are tech-avid “digital natives” who are seeking to digitize broad aspects of their care—when, in fact, we haven’t met an app yet that truly improves patient care, despite billions invested towards this end.

And so as a result, we have entrepreneurs building products and services that test well with focus groups but that are of limited true value to the seniors they intend to serve. We take a big-box approach that commoditizes products and services and end up selling to people, instead of selling for people and society. And thus we continue down a path of consumerism that generates great wealth but brings little comfort, little joy, and little dignity to our loved ones who are aging.

If we did walk some distance in the shoes of a senior, we might realize that the most pressing problems facing our seniors today do not take the shape of online access to one’s medical records, or the ability to receive appointment reminders by text message, or even the move away from fax. Instead they are far deeper, more profound, and meaningful, looming tall like giants that we look away from for fear of being forced to confront the inadequacy of our means to challenge them.

One such problem is loneliness, or the sense of loss in human connection that too many senior citizens experience as we tirelessly work to extend their lives. Professor Robert Putnam’s iconic book, Bowling Alone, warned us of the coming plague of loneliness and isolation in American society. He was not alone—Kwame Anthony Appiah also saw senior loneliness as an epidemic hiding in plain sight that future generations would hold in the same contempt we now hold gender inequality. And, yet, there has been little action on this front. The giant was too tall; our courage too feeble.

As the Aging industry, we cannot move in the direction of meaningful transformation without a fundamental shift in mindset. We must reframe our thinking about solutions for the aging, by dissociating our problem-solving from the business and economics at play, and expanding our awareness to recognize the giants we really face. Unless we reimagine our vocation as something grander than we’ve been comfortable with, and accept that the stakes are higher than we’ve dared to admit, we will fall short of our potential and ultimately pay the price once we become seniors ourselves.

It is time to launch a social movement that closes the gap between the financial success of aging and the human success of aging. A movement that recognizes that human return on investment is always a driver of financial return on investment, and as such should always be the priority in the business of aging.

A movement that pursues such return through changes in public policy, implementation of human-centered design, and the development of transformative new business models.

A movement that takes a customer segmentation approach that accounts for the people we often overlook and forget—those who are vulnerable, frail, or alone.

And a movement that doesn’t back down in front of the enormity of what it’s facing, but has the temerity to tackle challenges through unconventional solutions and strategic collaborations that have never been done before.

What’s powerful about movements is that they’re contagious—investments made with a focus on human return carry a transformative momentum that tends to build as it spreads, unlocking potential in people’s lives and across communities that becomes additional fuel to the movement. This level of impact reaches beyond that of many traditional corporate “business strategies,” which often focus largely on optimizing the inner workings of an organization.

As long as businesses remain primarily focused on themselves, their performance and that of the competitive landscape, they will fall short of realizing the potential for societal change that resides within their walls. By shifting their focus outwards, being sensitive to the needs of society (felt or unfelt), evaluating how their core competitive uniquely equip them to address these needs, and daring to cast a vision for change, businesses can and should tap into their capacity to shape movements.

Our hope is to give you a feel for how we believe that businesses—when pointed in the right direction, with the right intent—can enable meaningful, societal change. And the time is ripe for such a move. Businesses across the industry are poised to spark sweeping transformation thanks to unprecedented access to a wealth of tools, manpower, know-how, financial constructs and skillsets. Visionaries and entrepreneurs are emerging at an increasing pace in a field that is in desperate need of innovation that comes from the heart.

But the movement is still latent; the pioneers of change are too disconnected. Our call is about committing to make a difference together. This is not about how to extract more value from aging, but rather how to instill more values back into the industry of aging.

Adapted from a speech given by SHJ at the Harvard Fusion Symposium on February 5, 2019.

Photo: monkeybusinessimages, Getty Images

Sachin H. Jain, MD, MBA is chief executive officer (CEO) at CareMore Health, an innovative healthcare delivery system with $1.2B revenue & over 100,000 patients in 8 states. He is also a consulting professor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and a contributor at Forbes. Dr. Jain was previously CareMore’s chief medical officer (CMO) and chief operating officer (COO).

Matthew Hayward is a Marketing Manager at CareMore Health, a health care delivery system serving over 150,000 patients from coast to coast. Previously, he spent time at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Health Care Policy analyzing the effect of different regulatory scenarios on the Medicare Accountable Care Organization program. He also served in various roles at the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co., and holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Carnegie Mellon University. He is a citizen of four countries—France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ireland—and speaks English, French, Spanish and Italian.

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