Picture a woman in her 80s in rural Georgia. She’s probably lived in the same open farmlands where she grew up. She may have to travel miles along narrow two-lane highways to get to a clinic, pharmacy or even a grocery store. She more than likely depends on relatives or neighbors who have to take time off work to drive her to appointments. There’s little, if any, public transportation, elderly care or social support systems in these isolated areas.
With limited health literacy and digital fluency, she finds herself disengaging with her health system. So, she cancels appointments or puts off seeking the care she needs. This constant insecurity exacerbates her fragile chronic medical conditions and the vicious cycle continues.
For America’s aging population, access to quality healthcare and social services present many challenges that have significant downstream negative impacts. We now understand that health attributes are greatly influenced by an individual’s ZIP code and the social and emotional determinants of health.
Those factors are amplified for the estimated 46 million people living in rural communities who are unfairly burdened with risk factors that contribute to poor health outcomes. Low socioeconomic status, isolation and limited access to technologies catalyze some of the behavioral economic decisions to defer care, which often leads to unhealthy lifestyles. As a result, this population experiences more chronic health problems, like diabetes and hypertension, and take more medications. And yet, it’s harder for them to access the resources they need to support healthy aging.
In addition to the social and health impacts, caring for the elderly is expensive. The informal cost of elderly caregiving in the U.S. amounts to $522 billion annually—almost two-thirds of Medicaid spending is for the elderly and disabled, who represent only 25% of all enrollees. Needless to say, clinicians, experts and policy makers face an enormous challenge.
Assessing the complex problems of rural elderly care from afar is futile. Lives and communities are at stake, and the window of opportunity is narrow. We should think outside the box and approach the problem from a more personal, granular level. That’s the beauty of design thinking. It brings empathy into the equation. So, how does it work?
Design thinking is the collision of human-centered design and creative problem solving. It utilizes proven tools and processes to help experts and practitioners identify challenges, audience and processes, who then brainstorm innovative solutions that can be tested and applied.
While human-centered design focuses on developing solutions specifically for the people who are impacted, creative problem solving transforms the way products, services and processes are developed. When combined, holistic innovation is achieved by leveraging the ideas, viewpoints and insights from cross-functional teams. The result is an iterative prototype design that users and stakeholders can understand and validate, ensuring a better and more risk-averse solution.
What comes after the collaboration and design phase is just as crucial. Successful implementation requires ownership. This is particularly true for rural elderly care. Any successful solution must directly engage with trust brokers and community leaders in an ecosystem of partnerships. After all, these are the people who have the greatest insight into the factors that contribute to health disparities, because they live these challenges on a daily basis. They are dedicated to helping their community and are also likely to be the ones to implement the solutions.
With innovative, forward-thinking application of digital technology, we can increase the rural elderly’s access to information, resources, services and support. In this way, we can address complex issues that have eluded us for years, like access to elderly care, care coordination for chronic conditions, social isolation and loneliness, and medication management.
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