Don’t be surprised when you hear Grandma say, “Alexa, what can I take for this back pain?”

“One in seven people have Alexa or Google Home and smartphone penetration in the 50-plus segment is now 83 percent,” says Heather Kane, CEO of employer and individual plans for UnitedHealthcare of Arizona and New Mexico. “These technologies can be used at home to support people’s health, wellness and medical needs in new and convenient ways.”

They can also help lower healthcare costs, experts say. Health issues that come with aging can be expensive – for both the individual and their employer. To manage costs, older workers are increasingly taking notice of new technologies to manage their treatment.

A 2018 study from the International Journal of Emergency Medicine found that older people are just as likely to turn to telehealth as younger people. As older workers embrace new technology, employers are looking for way to adjust benefits plans to account for older employees’ needs while managing costs.

“Virtual technologies have had a major impact on cost control,” says Elie Goodman, vice president at MeMD. “Getting medical care for common illnesses and injuries from your phone or computer requires significantly fewer resources, and therefore, costs less than urgent care, emergency room or even a traditional doctor’s office. Moreover, the quality of care isn’t sacrificed. The same great doctors provide treatment, but they can do it in a manner that’s more affordable and convenient for everyone involved.”

Plugging in

Employers can better control their healthcare costs by educating employees on the true costs of healthcare and how different delivery systems affect cost, according to Charlene Hogeland, president-elect of the Greater Phoenix Association of Health Underwriters and senior account executive at Black Gould & Associates.

“Engagement is crucial, young or old,” says Will Spong, executive vice president for employee benefits at Lovitt & Touché, A Marsh & McLennan Agency Company. “Today more than ever, we are influenced by technology in every facet of our lives. At Lovitt & Touché, we believe it’s imperative to constantly remind and re-educate our customers’ employees to engage in technology, tools and resources afforded them through their benefits plans.”

Individuals now have access to cost estimating tools for specific health conditions or treatments, allowing them to compare costs between different sites of care or providers within a specific geography, according to Kane.

“Additionally, many healthcare plans now include a lower cost telemedicine option for basic care and, of course, the rise of walk-in clinics provides easier access to care at a lower cost,” she says.

One offshoot of today’s technology-laden society is that we’re becoming products of predictive analytics and artificial intelligence, according to Spong.

“We see extreme value in helping employees navigate their personal healthcare journey with predictive analytics tools,” he says. To illustrate this change, Spong says Lovitt & Touché has partnered with two technology platforms that help employees discover the best treatment options via guidance from artificial intelligence.

“In our internal analysis, we noticed that 20 percent of our telehealth visits came from members 50 years or older,” Goodman says. “For the most part, older employees are willing to adapt to new technologies to help them save time and money while reducing hassle. Employers need to assess whether their benefits plans utilize virtual technologies, or if they are better served with a standalone telehealth solution.”

The bottom line

Technology and its ability to offer greater access to care is great, but most business leaders want to know what they can do to help employees reduce healthcare spending while safeguarding the business’ bottom line.

“Educating employees on the importance of remaining in-network is an important step in managing out-of-pocket costs, as well as helping to inform employees on how to access or get information on the appropriate place of service based on their care needs,” Kane says. “For example: Using urgent care rather than the emergency room for non-emergency issues.”

Helping employees to prepare for the costs of healthcare in retirement, by investing in Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) or retirement reimbursement accounts where available, is also an important step to planning for the future, Kane says.

“Additionally, offering employees the tools and education to manage their health through early identification of health conditions, smoking cessation, wellness programs, etc., are all useful tools in achieving lower long-term costs.”

Experts say employers can and should encourage their employees to become more educated healthcare consumers.

“While not easy, there are numerous tools and resources available in the marketplace to help employers and employees alike,” Spong says. “We are constantly implementing new resources to guide employees through this difficult subject and help them save money.”

Healthy outlook

When seeking healthcare, Hogeland says we all need to be good consumers.

“We need to make educated decisions on options, outcomes and overall value or cost,” she says. “In doing so, consumers must understand their healthcare needs and use all resources available to them — cost estimator tools, telemedicine programs, and community resources.”

Kane says employers can adjust benefits plans to account for older employees’ needs while managing costs by offering wellness plans that reward healthy behaviors such as achievement of healthy biometric markers, completion of a health risk assessment, and enrollment in and support through targeted disease management programs. They can further incentivize employees and their dependents by offering a plan with lower deductibles or copays for achieving these wellness goals.

“Employers typically have great intentions and make an effort to educate employees about their healthcare options upon hire, yet that initial onboarding education is commonly forgotten within a couple months,” Goodman says. “When employees are healthy, they aren’t overly concerned about their healthcare costs. The key is to offer ongoing, year-round education to keep lower-cost healthcare options top of mind when they are actually needed.”

While Arizona’s healthcare industry is as innovative as they come, researchers still haven’t found that magic pill that will lower — or even stabilize — healthcare costs.

“Younger or older, male or female, savers or spenders, every employee is different,” Spong says. “While I’d like to say that there is a silver bullet, there isn’t. We need to educate all of our employees on the vast amount of resources available in the marketplace today, and continue to do so until they understand that their healthcare decisions ultimately impact how much money an employer is taking out of the paycheck.”