Tech's role in helping seniors overcome loneliness amid COVID-19 pandemic

Panelists at HIMSS20 Digital discuss virtual assistants and telehealth use in the pandemic.
By Laura Lovett
02:08 pm
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During the coronavirus pandemic seniors have been more isolated than ever. Health experts have increasingly begun to worry about the impacts of lockdown on this population, which is often forced to stay at home to avoid contamination. 

A group of panelists at HIMSS20 Digital sat down to discuss how tech can help tackle loneliness and provide virtual care to seniors.

One of the major challenges facing the senior population is hearing loss, according to AARP Chief Medical Officer Dr. Charlotte Yeh. 

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“If there is one place we can start in COVID, and especially during social distancing, where we are relying on technology, would be addressing the hearing impaired. Right now, about two-thirds of people 70 and older have clinically significant hearing loss, and only about 20%-30% ever get hearing aids,” Yeh said. 

She noted that hearing loss is associated with an increased risk in dementia, depression and falls. 

“Many of us think that this hearing loss actually has to do with isolation and loneliness because of the inability to communicate,” she said. 

Voice assistants have often been pitched as a way to help combat loneliness in older adults. While hearing loss is a factor in their usability, there are ways to cater to seniors' needs. 

“In the virtual assistance we support, one of the aspects we build in to control this technology is a couple of things. One is the actual volume of the voice-assisted technology,” Nathan Treloar, COO of Orbita, said during the panel. “If someone is completely deaf, it’s not going to help, and will have to rely on other modalities like touch and text. But for people who have limited hearing loss, you have the option on these voice assistants to control the volume, even personalizing the virtual assistant up to the hearing limitation.”

Treloar noted that, in addition to volume, voice assistants can be personalized to change the rate of speech and the articulation. 

COVID-19 has posed a whole new set of hurdles for individuals with hearing loss. 

“There are some very low-tech challenges,” Yeh said. “One of the challenges today, especially with universal mask-wearing, is you can’t lip read. You can’t see expressions or feelings. One thing I just got for my father who has severe hearing loss is masks that have a clear center, where you can actually see the mouth.”

Although clinicians are now having less face time with patients, using telehealth to communicate with patients in the hospital allows patients to see their clinician’s full face. 

“Something unexpected we realized is how important seeing faces is in this particular population,” Vicki Nolen, system director of clinical excellence and virtual care at CHRISTUS Health, said on the panel. 

Nolen noted that the clinicians have been keen on accepting new modes of care, like telehealth. 

“It’s not only the clinicians that have learned to adapt and been able to do so, but it’s also the older adult population,” Yes said. “I love the fact that the e-health alliance surveyed Medicare beneficiaries, so you are talking 65 and older – 68% of them as of April – had already tried new technology they hadn’t used before to communicate and stay connected with others.”

During the global pandemic, these modes of care are essential, but as both patients and clinicians get on board with telehealth and other modes of technology, there may be long-term benefits for providing this form of care beyond the coronavirus crisis.

“I think there are some added side benefits, like the clinician can see the patient in their home, they can now see the medications scattered on the kitchen table,” Yeh said. “When we wonder about medication adherence or on the right day, you now have a good appreciation of what your patient is doing in the home, in the house, and can make those adjustments, which we never had access to before.”

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