Healthcare marketers: Don't forget about the baby boomers

An 86-year-old grandmother in Liverpool recently performed a Google search that blew up the online universe. She entered: “Please translate these roman numerals mcmxcviii thank you.” Her post provided a timely reminder that while the aging population may speak a different language than the younger folks — and have different values and needs — its members are quite connected to the digital world.

Baby boomers, approximately born between 1946 and 1964, make up the majority of this aging group. They number more than 76 million in the U.S., and by 2029 they will account for a 73% increase in the population aged 65 and up. They now spend more money on technology than any other age group — and, what's more, two-thirds of them are now active on social media. According to recent research by content marketing agency Fractl, boomers are 19% likelier to share Facebook content than any other generation. Consider the myth about digitally challenged boomers to be well and truly debunked.

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It follows, therefore, that this is a ripe demographic for digital health services and devices. In fact, it's now a matter of urgency: Boomers are less healthy and more costly, from a systemic perspective, than previous generations. According to the American Hospital Association, 37 million boomers will be managing multiple chronic conditions by 2030. One in four will have diabetes, almost half will suffer from arthritis, and more than a third will be classified as obese.

“The boomer group is a sick population,” says Zoe Dunn, principal, Hale Advisors. “They are heavily taxing our healthcare system.”

THE EMERGING CONSENSUS

Medicare spending topped $632 billion in 2015. The Congressional Budget Office projects an average annual increase of 1.4% per beneficiary between now and 2024. The most prevalent boomer ailments are interrelated, and lifestyle choices affect many of them.

The emerging consensus is that technology innovation offers the best hope of changing behaviors — that by approaching boomers with a variety of tech-related services and tools, healthcare and pharma can play a vital role in improving outcomes and reducing costs. The good news is that boomers, on the whole, willingly embrace digital healthcare. Decision Resources Group found in its 2015 ePharma Consumer study that 51% of U.S. adults, aged 55 and above, had researched Rx info online in the previous 12 months (versus 62% for all adults). Furthermore, 21% of the older demographic had done so using a mobile device.

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Maryann Kuzel, SVP, head of healthcare strategy at Rapp, notes that a defining boomer characteristic is their high physician-trust level — so much so that she characterizes them as survivors of the physician-centric era. “They are somewhat more traditional in their healthcare beliefs and behaviors,” she explains. “They check in with their doctor more than other sources to seek help with both illness and wellness.”

However, such interactions are becoming increasingly digital. A recent Harris Poll commissioned by Salesforce showed that boomers are communicating with their primary care physicians via portals to look at health data (29%), view test results (24%), fill or refill prescriptions (12%), and check insurance coverage (10%). What's more, 57% of boomers said they would be open to virtual treatment options; 51% said they would choose a PCP who offers a patient app over one who does not; 37% said they would choose a PCP who offers virtual treatment over one who does not; and 29% said they would choose a PCP who uses data from patients' wearable devices over one who does not.

Managed care, too, is an important part of the digital health ecosystem, and insurers would be wise to focus more on aging populations. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island recently reached out to its newly eligible Medicare population for the first time via digital and social channels — with spectacular results, according to DMN. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island saw a 38% increase in online Medicare revenue, as well as a 50% application conversion rate (up from 27%). Furthermore, it reports that 50% of its Medicare traffic now comes via mobile.

WEARABLES YES, APPS MAYBE

We now know that boomers are searching for health info online, consuming and sharing content, using smartphones, and looking forward to a future of tele­medicine. What about wearables and apps?

Dunn reports on her mother-in-law's unwavering dedication to reaching her daily step total. In terms of the wider boomer picture, the Harris Salesforce study reports that 20% of boomers currently own a wearable health-tracking device (13% fitness-related, 3% consumer-related, and 4% clinical-related). Of those owners, 74% say they would want their doctor to have access to data from their devices. Perhaps surprisingly, they are more likely to wear their devices daily (66%) than any other generation (55% for all users, and just 43% for millennials).

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Also likely to be of interest to healthcare stakeholders: Forty-five percent of boomers said they would wear a tracking device given to them by their HCP in exchange for access to data, while 47% said they would wear one given to them by their insurance company in exchange for potentially better rates based on health data.

Boomers fare less well on app adoption: Nineteen percent said they use one app to track health, nutrition, or fitness data, while just 9% report using two or more apps. Of the latter group, 93% would like their apps to integrate and share data.

The well-documented burdens of the app world also apply to the boomer market. The majority of downloaded apps are rarely or never used — there are around 165,000 health and fitness apps. Another roadblock includes the lack of integration or inter­operability between chronic disease apps, particularly for users managing coexisting conditions. There may also be a disconnect between young app developers and older boomer users, especially around special requirements regarding hearing, eyesight, and dexterity.

“GET OLD” WITH PFIZER

In short, med-tech companies need to work more closely with boomers to develop innovative products of true value to both users and the healthcare system. One pharma company on such a path is Pfizer. Back in 2012 Pfizer launched its Get Old program to “challenge misperceptions of aging” and “drive conversations that inspire people of all ages to take action on their own health and explore new opportunities.” Get Old now boasts a 400,000-strong community via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and its website.

“We've got a very active Facebook community and we recently launched on Instagram,” notes Sally Jacob, senior director, communications, Pfizer. “We've found that people love sharing motivational stories and images that turn conventional ideas about aging upside down.”

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Pfizer recently launched a unique partnership with crowd-funding platform Indiegogo. Project Get Old challenged its own community members (along with Indiegogo's army of entrepreneurs) to come up with “the next big idea in healthy aging.”

The best idea will receive $50,000 in funding and an opportunity to meet with a team of Pfizer experts to help make that idea a reality. “It's a creative way to extend our mission from concept and conversation into something that could become a concrete program or product,” Jacob says.

At this point Pfizer is probably the exception rather than the rule. Matthew Arnold, principal analyst, DRG, believes pharma should place a greater digital focus on boomers. “If you're marketing a prescription drug to an older audience and you're not really investing in digital, you're missing an opportunity to engage half of your target demographic,” he says.