Why health startups should care about ‘alpha geek’ caregivers

Startups hoping to disrupt health care, here’s an audience you need to get to know: caregivers.
According to a Pew Internet & American Life Project report released Thursday, caregivers are more likely than other Internet users to look for health information online and take advantage of social tools related to health.
Borrowing tech guru Tim O’Reilly’s phrase, Susannah Fox, associate director of digital strategy for Pew, calls caregivers the “alpha geeks” of social tech in health.
“They are very much in need of help and in need of up-to-the-minute, good quality health information. They are using all the tools at their disposal in new ways to gather and share health information on behalf of themselves and on behalf of the people they love and care for,” she said. “[Caregivers] are creating the tools that they need, just as hackers create the tools that they need.”
While 80 percent of Internet users in the U.S. search for health information online, the report said 88 percent of caregivers conduct those types of searches. For certain kinds of information and activities, the differences between online caregivers and non-caregivers are even more significant.
According to the study:

  • 38 percent of online caregivers have looked at drug reviews online, compared with 18 percent of non-caregivers
  • 26 percent of caregivers online have searched the Web for someone with similar health concerns, compared with 15 percent of non-caregivers
  • 21 percent of online caregivers have looked at online reviews and rankings of doctors or other providers, compared with 13 percent of non-caregivers
  • 28 percent of caregivers said they turned to others with a similar health condition, compared with 17 percent of non-caregivers who did so, on or offline
  • 24 percent of online caregivers said they tracked non-weight/fitness health indicators and symptoms online, compared to 13 percent of non-caregivers

While the study confirmed some of what Pew already suspected — that caregivers use the Internet more intensely than others — Fox said that statistical analysis showed that they’re not just more likely to be middle-aged or more educated, but that there’s something about being a caregiver that makes their online behavior different.
The findings are significant for policymakers, hospital administrators, clinicians and patients themselves, as well as those working on health tech startups. In the past year, a couple of new startups have launched directly targeting caregivers, including CareZone, launched by former Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz, and CareLinx. But caregivers are also clearly a key audience for general health tech startups. These are the ones who will most actively embrace the apps and services that help them find doctors, track symptoms, research medical facilities and more — for themselves and those they love. As more people turn to the Web for health information and more people rely on loved ones to help conduct that research, that will become increasingly true, Fox said.
“This report is a window into the future,” she added. “We now have the data to show that caregivers are a viable target market for anyone who’s interested in reaching health care consumers, especially older adults who are less likely to be wired than younger adults.”