Caregivers love the web but developers could do more to engage them

As the father of an 11-year-old with Crohn’s disease, Justin Vandergrift is often in search of information that can help him better understand his daughter’s illness and give her the best support. When she was prescribed steroids, he took to the internet to see how long the weight gain would last and what other parents were experiencing with their children. When she went in for an operation, he went online nearly every night to read up on the procedure and ways that he and his family could help her.

Once you know how to filter out the bad information online, he said, the web can be a valuable resource for educating yourself and reaching a wider community of parents and patients.

“The best thing it does for me is that it shows me there are others in the role that I’m in… that their outcomes were positive and here are the steps they used to get through it,” he said. “It’s therapeutic, in a sense.”

And as a pro-technology caregiver, he’s hardly alone. According to study released Thursday from the Pew Internet and American Life, the percentage of U.S. adults caring for an adult or child with a serious health issue has climbed from 30 percent to 39 percent in the last two years. And — of particular interest to the growing class of health technology developers and entrepreneurs — they’re much more likely than their non-caregiving peers to turn to technology and online resources for help.

For example:

  • Seventy-two percent of caregivers say they’ve gone online to look for health information, compared with 50 percent of non-caregivers;
  • Fifty-two percent of caregivers indicate that they’ve taken part in a health-related social activity online, compared with 33 percent of non-caregivers; and
  • Thirty-seven percent of caregivers with a cell phone say they have used it to look for health information, compared with 27 percent of cell-phone-owning non-caregivers.

Still, despite the fact that caregivers are what Pew’s associate director Susannah Fox calls the “alpha geeks” of health care, the data shows that the industry could do far more to engage them.

For caregivers, consuming information is ‘like a competitive sport’

“If you look at this data like the first report card, it’s kind of a D+,” Fox said.

On one hand, it is positive sign that 59% of caregivers with internet access say online resources have been helpful in supporting the person in their care and that 52% say online resources have helped them cope with the stress that can accompany the role. But that still means a good chunk of people hungry for digital tools and information aren’t being satisfied.

“Caregivers seem to be the kind of kid who sits in the front row of every class. They are voracious information consumers – they consume it like it’s a competitive sport,” said Fox. “They don’t let paywalls stand in their way and they’re most likely to tap every information source that’s available to them, including offline.”

For developers and health innovators, that means there’s a big opportunity to be had in reaching these eager-to-be connected caregivers. There are some startups, like CareZone and CareLinx, that target caregivers directly. But Pew’s research indicates caregivers are a key audience for health companies of all kinds. Adults taking care of older family members or friends or a child with an illness are the ones most willing to embrace apps and tools that help them connect with doctors, research medical procedures, track symptoms and more.

A big untapped market? Medication management

Per Pew’s data, one area in particular that seems ripe for innovation is medication adherence. A report earlier this month found that the U.S. spends $200 billion every year – or 8 percent of the country’s total health care spend – on medical care related to the improper or unnecessary use of prescription drugs. Medication management could go a long way in bringing that number down but 39 percent of caregivers manage medications for a loved one and just 7 percent use online or mobile tools.

“This is a big, untapped market in terms of caregivers who are very wired and bristling with technology,” said Fox. “They outdo everyone else when it consumption but they’re not yet using apps for this really key aspect of health care, which is medication management.”