Telehealth Could Rescue Unpaid Caregivers in 2022
Written By: Zach Beasley
During World War II, when the British army was pinned against the sea at Dunkirk, a brave force of civilian volunteers entered harm’s way to ferry home thousands of stranded troops before German forces arrived. At the time, the British army’s escape was described as a miracle. Similarly, in the health care space today, there is a miracle of sorts being performed with the help of a group of civilian heroes.
Faced with assaults from many fronts, including a global pandemic, an aging population and an alarming staffing shortage, the U.S. health care system has held strong in no small part due to the increasing burdens taken on by unpaid caregivers.
Unfortunately, as it stands now, unpaid caregivers are often given the unenviable task of performing sensitive medical tasks without the benefit of significant training.
A short explainer from a doctor or nurse or possibly getting to practice injections on an orange hardly feels adequate before having to provide critical care to a family member or loved one.
A 2016 report conducted by United Hospital Fund and AARP Public Policy Institute found that 46% of the caregivers surveyed did not feel confident or prepared to perform the sensitive medical tasks required of them.
Though we may never see a Hollywood blockbuster made about these heroes, the least we can do, it seems, is provide them with any support that they need to take care of themselves and the patients in their care.
Unfortunately, as with most things in the health care space, providing that support is a more complex task than it might appear.
Caregivers are Struggling
To understand why this is such an urgent issue, it helps to first survey the current landscape for unpaid caregivers. It likely will come as no surprise that many of these unpaid caregivers struggle with both the care tasks required of them and with their own mental health.
For instance, a recent survey from the American Psychological Association showed that 66 percent of caregivers reported adverse mental health symptoms within the last month
Unsurprisingly, this can often impair the ability of these unpaid caregivers to provide adequate support and even lead to illness and increased rates of hospitalization for both the caregiver and the patient under their care.
The additional burden this places on our health care system is twofold, it removes a person who is providing supplemental care and adds additional person into the system who requires care.
This cascading effect places additional burdens on our health care system, burdens that it can ill afford to bear. By addressing this problem with targeted, systemic reforms we can reverse that cascade, decrease those mobilizations for both caregivers and those under their care. However, given the current challenges in the health care field, we will need to get creative.
Benefits of Leveraging New Technology
Another major issue is that this task of providing adequate training to unpaid caregivers runs straight into another mounting problem in the health care sector, the lack of available staff. Facilities and home health care providers are having trouble finding enough staff to deal with both today’s emergencies and routine care.
As a result, we are seeing increasing rates of burnout and a rising mental health burden in this sector as well.
One intriguing option is to provide training and support to these caregivers right in their homes using telehealth solutions. Such a program could allow qualified health care professionals to amplify their impact while staying in a central location, free of logistical challenges like travel, while still providing unpaid caregivers with additional training and support.
Telehealth training for unpaid caregivers has already been studied in a number of diverse settings with a variety of implementations. But one consistent theme found throughout is that these programs can significantly impact the quality of life for unpaid caregivers, and the patients under their care. Those impacts could also pay dividends for our health care system as a whole.
This study looked at the impact of providing unpaid caregivers of patients recovering from strokes with access to a telehealth training and support platform. The authors found a significant reduction in ER visits and hospital readmissions for patients whose caregivers had access to those resources. Given the current circumstances, the benefits of seeing such reductions play out at scale, providing relief to emergency rooms that are being overwhelmed and are understaffed, are hard to overstate.
Another study showed that providing telehealth support groups for caregivers of veterans resulted in an average savings of $2,768 per patient after six months while the cost of delivering the support was only $300 per participant. Again, seeing those kinds of reductions in cost would be game-changing for many health care systems, if programs like this were implemented widely.
But it is not just one study here or there demonstrating the effectiveness of these telehealth solutions. Overall analyses of this growing body of literature reveal many similar success stories.
For instance, this systematic review found an incredibly strong link between telehealth interventions and the improved well-being of caregivers, as well as positive effects on health outcomes for the patients in their care. The study’s authors analyzed 57 studies related to providing caregivers with telehealth support. 73% of those studies found significant improvements in outcomes for unpaid caregivers and/or their patients.
We can dismiss or question a single study and when diving into the data on any given topic, a healthy sense of skepticism is always helpful, but the picture is becoming clearer by the second. Advocates have worked hard to raise awareness about unpaid caregivers and the critical work they do, they have raised alarm bells about the struggles this group faces and the need for support. But now, we are starting to learn which solutions work, and we need to turn our attention to ensuring that those solutions are available to any unpaid caregiver who might benefit from them.
Speedbumps to Progress
Unfortunately, despite the demonstrated efficacy of these interventions, significant progress in this area has remained elusive.
That’s why any call to action needs to acknowledge the challenges of implementation. In the case of telehealth training, these challenges include among others red tape, staffing shortages, and the current immediate demands created by the pandemic.
There is no getting around the worsening staff shortages and the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the home health care space. Few sectors are struggling as much to find workers. While its clear telehealth solutions could help mitigate this issue, it remains a major challenge for home care providers and medical providers to try and institute new policies and programs in the midst of such a crisis.
But given the absolutely critical nature of finding solutions in this space, solutions that will improve the lives, health and well-being of caregivers, individuals under their care and our health care workers, those challenges can and should be overcome.
The Future of Health Care is at Stake
For a field where some have turned their hopes toward bipedal robots, relief from a pragmatic program that can be implemented now would surely be welcomed.
Instead of waiting for Bladerunner or Star Wars to become a reality, we can simply engage the existing technology we already have that research has already proven will work.
That isn’t to say that we should stop swinging for the fences with new technology. It is simply a reminder that we need to focus on the here and now. Unpaid caregivers are struggling with these burdens at this very moment, and they deserve support and relief now.
Ultimately, our unpaid caregivers are facing a daunting set of challenges. Every day they are asked to perform miracles and every day they again answer the call. But as relentless demographic trends and public health crises continue to close in on them, it won’t be long before they too feel like their backs are against the sea. It would be wise then if we started to launch those rescue ships now, before it’s too late.
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