Why Digital Supports for Family Caregivers Are Healthcare’s New Value Differentiator

Tech-enabled support could help avoid health complications for seniors, improve the patient experience and reduce costs.

Healthcare’s new care coordinators are unpaid family caregivers—and research shows they are the most overused resource in healthcare: highly relied on for their insight, but often not considered part of the care team.

Now, providing value-centered care for seniors depends on recognizing family caregivers’ role in maintaining seniors’ health and providing the support these caregivers need to improve health outcomes and quality of life.

A Key Component for Value

Nearly 48 million people provided unpaid care for adults in 2020, up 16.6% since 2015, according to a recent report. About one in four provides care or support for more than one person. Two out of three are female.

Today, the average family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who works part-time, according to AARP research. Often, these women care not only for their aging parent, but also for their children. Given the cost of hiring a professional caregiver and the competition for healthcare resources during the pandemic, these women take on the demands of caregiving without the social support needed to juggle these responsibilities. They also typically do not get adequate support from their parents’ healthcare providers or the healthcare system as a whole.

While the stresses associated with family caregiving have always been high, recent research shows that COVID-19 exacerbated these pressures. The impact on the health of caregivers and those they support runs deep:

Nearly half of those who care for a parent say they receive less social support in their role than they did before COVID-19, and about 75% say navigating the healthcare system is more difficult, one recent study found. Most say their parent’s behavior has worsened (68.8%).

Two out of three unpaid caregivers experienced higher rates of depression, anxiety, fatigue and sleep disturbances than non-caregivers of the same age, a CDC survey found.

Among adults caring for both children of their own and aging parents, 85% experienced adverse mental health symptoms, and about half said they had struggled with suicidal thoughts in the past month—eight times the odds of serious suicidal ideation in non-parents/non-caregivers, according to the CDC.

These statistics underscore the need for health systems and health plans to recognize the mental and physical impact of family caregiving. They also demand that leaders find impactful and cost-effective ways to improve senior care by empowering caregivers to make informed care decisions and carry out professional care recommendations. Digital technology can enhance the capacity of the healthcare system to provide what is needed in a flexible way at lower cost. It’s a modern approach that could not only enhance health outcomes, but also improve quality of life for seniors and caregivers alike.

Here are three ways tech-enabled support could help avoid health complications for seniors, improve the patient experience and reduce costs.

No. 1: Decreasing competition for resources. Most caregivers are untrained, and they manage competing demands, from employment to other family responsibilities. During the pandemic in particular, when competition for healthcare resources is stiff, it can be easy for family caregivers and those they assist to lose track of who they are supposed to see and when, how to manage their medications and when to call a provider. Tech-enabled support, from on-demand video visits to live chats with nurses or licensed social workers, eases access to healthcare professionals, enabling caregivers to ask questions in the moment. This reduces costs of care by helping caregivers understand and act on what matters. It also provides the basis for more informed care decision making and higher-quality medical assistance, helping to reduce expensive emergency department visits as well as repeat hospitalizations.

No. 2: Enhancing access to mental health support. As family caregivers experience more intense challenges in their role—and as mental health worsens for some seniors—an increasing number of older adults are more open to receiving behavioral health services. Pairing family caregivers and their loved ones with virtual behavioral health, whether on demand or via a scheduled visit, is an important step toward reducing feelings of isolation and stress. This helps avoid caregiver burnout, enhancing quality of life while ensuring that care can remain in the home as long as possible. One study shows that a robust program for reducing caregiver stress improved decision making for 87% of respondents.

No. 3: Providing remote training for specialized care needs. Family caregivers face enormous pressure to fulfill tasks that ordinarily would be performed by a healthcare professional. For example, a woman whose husband requires long-term use of a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line found she would be responsible for cleaning and flushing the PICC line three times a day. It’s a daunting task given her fears that she could inadvertently introduce bacteria into the line, further harming her husband’s health. By providing live virtual training and access to a healthcare specialist when questions arise, healthcare organizations can help maintain the integrity of care delivered. This helps keep care in less expensive settings. It also bolsters caregivers’ confidence, creating a more positive environment for all involved.

By investing in tech-enabled support for caregivers, healthcare organizations can help take the mental weight of care off those who coordinate services for seniors. This type of digital support is quickly becoming an essential part of the value equation, improving health outcomes for caregivers and patients alike while reducing care costs.

Author Information

Claudia Fine, LCSW, MPH, is chief professional officer, eFamilyCare.