Living forever has always been a dream of mankind. Since the 20th century, we’ve increased life expectancy by 30 years from 49 to 79, but are we living those additional years to the fullest?
Americans are consuming healthcare services at an increasingly intense rate the older we become. While U.S. residents over the age of 65 only made up 14% of the population in 2012, they accounted for 34% of healthcare-related spending, according to a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research report, titled “Medical Spending of The U.S. Elderly.” Additionally, medical expenses for the elderly more than double between the ages of 70 and 90, with the average amount spent on healthcare exceeding $25,000 annually for those aged 90 or above.
From dementia to diabetes to heart disease, these are the conditions likely to take up most our last years on Earth. The result is the mindset that growing old is often seen as a period of diminishment, not opportunity. While the medical community has made significant advances to help treat these chronic conditions, more measures can and should be implemented to delay their onsets.
Prevention vs. Treatment: Fee-for-Service Medicine Affects Patient Health
Basic science tells us eating right, exercising and abstaining from drug use will generally lead to a longer, healthier life and possibly stave off common conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. However, very little financial incentives are in place to encourage this type of preventable behavior. The healthcare system doesn’t invest much into patient education and primary care office visits bill for very little.
Instead, insurance companies reimburse doctors based on procedures. While rewarding healthcare providers for each step they take to make a patient better may seem admirable on the surface, it creates a culture focused more on treating than preventing.
In a 2014 study titled, “Do Physicians’ Financial Incentives Affect Medical Treatment and Patient Health,” researchers found reimbursement changes often lead physicians to adjust treatment patterns, especially among elective procedures.
It doesn’t have to be this way. What if the healthcare community refocused its efforts on preserving the physical, social and emotional dimensions that define a healthy life?Aging is still inevitable, but shortening the decline that occurs near the end of life could maximize the time individuals are physically and mentally connected and empowered.
Intelligent Information Sharing Can Lengthen Our Healthspans
There is no one-solution-fits all in the battle to extend healthy life expectancies, but the utilization and sharing of medical data can help. Every time a doctor sees a patient, he or she is collecting an extensive amount of healthcare data, such as patient’s history, symptoms, imaging and lab tests. This data is then used to arrive at an optimal treatment decision, rarely to prevent.
Eliminating medical silos and connecting them with the latest in intelligent systems could play a major role in prediction and prevention of disease. Data can provide medical practitioners with the information they need to build better patient profiles to more effectively predict, diagnose and possibly delay the onset of disease.
Wearable devices and smartphone apps are taking steps to use predictive analytics to improve patient care. For instance, eCare21 is a remote patient-monitoring system that collects thousands of pieces of health data from thousands of senior citizens. The company’s platform uses smartphones, sensors and over 200 wearable and in-home devices to monitor and securely share key digital health parameters, such as glucose, blood pressure, sleep efficiency, heart rate, physical activity and more in an effort to provide more proactive care.
Singapore, named third in the world for life expectancy by the World Health Organization, is also using data to take more preventative measures to delay aging. The county’s Centre for Healthy Ageing at the National University Health System is collaborating with other global institutions to compare data and perform studies to test different aging interventions.
Life insurance companies are also stepping up by using policyholder health data to offer incentives. John Hancock partnered with Vitality to integrate wellness benefits with life insurance products by collecting data from activities policy holders do to stay healthy, such as: meeting step goals tracked through a free Fitbit®; getting annual health screenings; staying tobacco-free; and more. Annual premiums are reduced and rewards and discounts are achieved when personalized health goals are met.
While there is no need for a national database of all the medical and personal information to provide a complete picture of America’s aging population, public health officials and other stakeholders can still use the data available to analyze patterns and compare similar patients. By deploying new technologies, sharing data and implementing more incentives for preventative care, we can close the gap between healthy aging and growing old. After all, each of us desires to live a quality of life we always envisioned as long as we can.