For decades, the healthcare industry has poured untold billions of dollars into advancements that cure disease and prolong life. The success of this collective effort is abundantly evident in lifespans and survival rates. The irony is that this well-intentioned focus on technology and treatment is compounding what is arguably healthcare’s biggest challenge: caring for our aging nation.
Meanwhile, the cornerstone of care for millions across the country has been consistently overlooked by the healthcare system. Family caregivers—the largest unpaid workforce in the country—provide an essential service to the nation, with the care they give valued at nearly $500 billion per year.
It’s time for providers and payers to recognize this enormous value and start engaging, supporting, and rallying around family caregivers.
While they don’t have an official title to reflect it, family caregivers are arguably the most integral members of the care team. Many of these remarkable husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters assume the role of caregiver while simultaneously working full-time and managing household responsibilities. Some provide round-the-clock care to loved ones, handling everything from administering medications to driving to appointments to assisting with basic activities like bathing, eating and toileting.
Family caregivers need help coordinating care, monitoring medications and managing the difficult behaviors of loved ones. They need access to technology that will connect them with a support network—clinicians, resources and community—so they feel empowered instead of isolated. Most importantly, they need to feel valued and confident in their role as caregiver.
Having worked with caregivers for nearly 20 years, I’ve seen first-hand how an engaged caregiver can favorably impact the way care is delivered and help keep their loved ones at home, where the majority of elders desire to remain.
A recent study comparing two similar cohorts of complex patients—one from the general Medicare Current Beneficiaries Survey (MCBS) and one consisting of 2,000 patients from Seniorlink, Inc.—found that engaged family caregivers, supported by professional care teams and technology, led to 85 percent fewer falls, 32 percent fewer inpatient hospitalizations, and overall healthcare savings of about $3,000 per patient. This study demonstrates the direct value of an engaged family caregiver.
What’s more, caregivers can serve as clinicians’ “eyes and ears” in the home, delivering key information to care teams about changes in behaviors, symptoms and environment. With greater understanding of the whole person and their daily life, clinicians will have greater ability to address the social determinants of health, a key component of person-centered care.
In order to deliver these benefits, caregivers must be fully recognized and integrated into the care team.
As our nation ages, the need for family caregivers will only increase. Americans ages 65 and over accounted for 15.2 percent of the total population in 2016, and are projected to rise to nearly 24 percent by 2060.
The government is beginning to address this demographic reality, and to recognize the value of caregivers. This year’s passage of the RAISE Caregivers Act, which obligates the U.S. Health and Human Services department to create a national strategy for supporting family caregivers, means that we have a new opportunity to create the infrastructure and develop the resources needed to give family caregivers some long-overdue recognition and support.
As business and healthcare industry leaders, we must make sure that new innovations are anchored in person-centered care and connect the role of family caregivers in the care delivery system. If we want to treat the whole person, we must understand how they live between visits to the doctor.
One thing is certain: Family caregivers will continue to fill the gaps in our healthcare system. If we follow the principle of engaging with family caregivers, future generations may look back and realize that empowering today’s caregiving workforce was the pivot point in improving outcomes and controlling the growth in our nation’s healthcare costs.