When the dust settles on 2020, it will be remembered as the year when circumstances finally forced senior living providers to embrace technology in ways they were reluctant to in the past.
“The tech genie has been loosed from the bottle and it’s not going to go back in,” LCS Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer Frank Vedder told Senior Housing News. The Des Moines, Iowa-based LCS Family of Companies includes Life Care Services, one of the largest providers in the nation.
And LCS is not the only large provider that is leveraging technology in new ways. Tech supported operational transformations at Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) in 2020, and providers now have to assimilate these innovations into their operations while staying “nimble” and focusing on what matters most, CEO Cindy Baier told SHN. Brentwood, Tennessee-based Brookdale operates about 763 communities nationally.
Data backs up the rise of tech in senior living: Covid-19 led to an explosion of tech spending last year, according to the results of a survey conducted by SHN and global health technology firm Philips. And a majority of respondents – 87% – indicated that their tech budgets would expand in 2021.
Telehealth and telemedicine services were in demand. Video platforms allowed residents to keep in touch with staff, family members and each other. Sales teams pivoted to online tours and social media engagement to propel lead generation. And some providers are looking to use technology as a tool to overhaul operations and culture.
But not every promising technology actually delivered during the pandemic, Vedder noted. And not every organization has the financial resources to invest more heavily in technology in 2021, observed Maxwell Group Chief Information Officer Aniello Salierno. Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, the company manages communities in seven states, under the Senior Living Communities brand.
Still, Salierno agrees that the pandemic has overcome resistance to new technology, and providers will have to find ways to smartly invest in effective solutions even as they recover from the financial blows dealt by Covid-19.
Here are further thoughts from Vedder, Baier and Salierno on how their companies harnessed tech in 2020, and what the coming year might bring:
Frank Vedder, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, LCS
There are several areas where we’re making some pretty significant investments. One key area is we are looking to implement a world-class human capital management (HCM) system. The battle for talent is going to be key. And where we have implemented our HCM system, it’s enabled our communities to respond with flexibility in pay and vacation schedules to address the ever-changing conditions that they’re facing. So implementing a world-class, HCM system is a key priority. We are also implementing enterprise customer relationship management (CRM) and sales platforms, to help future residents consider the platform or our offerings in a very safe way. That’s a way that we’re helping potential residents make engaged and informed decisions.
Some of the other things that we’re looking at really are closely tied to things like information security – we’re seeing a large number of threats and attacks across all of the industry. We’re highly focused on making sure we’re putting all the technology in place to help keep our employees, residents and business ready.
Within the Eversafe360° platform, one of our early priorities is telemedicine – helping to make sure we can deliver high quality health care in a safe environment. It’s our response to how we envision our future, and it does have several technology components. It includes telemedicine, advanced UV cleaning, IT solutions for emotional well being, air quality improvements. It really covers the gamut in terms of how we’re going to apply different types of technology as part of the [platform].
Our online sales and marketing platform is an area where I feel LCS has done a fantastic job. We were very early enabling things like virtual visits, allowing people to engage with us in a way that they prefer. Our sales and marketing technology allows us to respond in person, in voice, in text – any way that a potential resident or their family wants to learn about our senior living offerings.
Overall, it really is about responding in the way that the customer wants, cued by their interests that drive activity. It’s engaging with them in a way that they choose.
There have been a lot of challenges in the last 12 months. Around the June timeframe, there were lots of comments about automating things like contract tracing, so that we can help make sure if someone did have coronavirus, we could very quickly in an automated way, know who potentially needed to be contacted or be quarantined. I don’t feel like that overall technology approach really delivered on the promise, and I think it was too little, too late.
A couple other things that I’ve seen in spots across the industry overall was where we’re trying to very quickly implement things like resident engagement with private TV channels. A lot of times, there was a lack of compatibility in those and they didn’t necessarily meet the promise. [There were also issues with] smart home and in-home device integration. That [was more due to] a lack of support and training, than the technology itself.
Our [tech] budget was submitted to, and approved by, the board, and it did include a 5% increase in technology spending, to help make sure that we not only keep pace, but continue to provide positive differentiation and what else LCS offers.
We’re also looking to improve our information security. We’re becoming a more data-driven company, industries like ours are very data rich and we’ve seen this industry hit with attacks. As we continue to seek out better ways to understand our residents’ needs, we need to protect that information.
We use data in a variety of ways. A lot of that comes together in a platform that we offer our communities. What that does is it provides a very wide point of view that allows our communities to compare their own performance, their own activity, and their own feedback against not only the LCS communities, but what we gather from the industry, as well.
One of the key services that LCS corporate offers to the communities is broad-based data aggregation so that they can look at their metrics, whether it be a type of [care level] or region, and help make sure that they understand where the opportunities exist to improve. That covers all sorts of facets: sales activities; clinical results; resident engagement scores; financial performance. We put together a pretty good dashboard that helps the community see their own performance and all of those areas compared to industry norms.
Aniello Salierno, Chief Information Officer, The Maxwell Group
Our priorities are twofold. We plan to continue to better utilize and champion technology that provides our team members better efficiencies and to provide the resident members we serve better engagement.
Filtering out the hardships introduced by Covid-19 as well as the undue negative publicity for our industry, it did help accelerate some companies to pay closer attention to the needs of the residents we serve. For example, we are currently collaborating with Microsoft and Lenovo on telehealth options for our members in care services. We are also collaborating with Facebook on more enhanced member engagement experiences with socially distanced family and friends.
Aside from collaborating with companies, one of the many highlights of my year has been collaborating with resident members and their desire to better utilize technology. Specifically, we implemented a home grown member portal with access to dining menus and reservations, work order requests, social events, etc. During this implementation, I learned that this initiative inspired a 100-year old independent living member to get her first smartphone and iPad. I’ve since used this resident and story to inspire team members and other resident members that may be reluctant or scared to embrace technology.
We have always focused on being as forward-thinking with technology as reasonably possible. Decisions and investments we made in several technology partnerships years ago allowed us to be very nimble with our response to the pandemic versus many of our peers. From our continued enhancements with our use of electronic health records (EHR), to our network infrastructure optimized for remote work, to our mass communication capabilities, to our highly adopted use of Microsoft 365.
Each of these investments (and many more) allowed us as a company to better focus on protecting our team members and resident members from the pandemic. For example, our team members immediately had the ability and experience to leverage Microsoft Teams to collaborate not only on regional calls, but also for socially distanced local stand-up meetings for care staff. Our mass communication capabilities allowed us to have no lapse in effective communication to team members, resident members, and their families about the constant changes due to Covid-19. The technologies we had in place allowed us to also quickly enable electronic Covid-19 checklist screening as well as electronic online access for families to schedule visits for those living in care services.
We have learned from past failed initiatives. Thoroughly vetting the need, costs, and establishing a team that will assist in successful adoption has been key. Using this simple but often overlooked formula has saved us from significant fails this year.
In general, our technology budget has remained flat for 2021. We have and continue to reevaluate and renegotiate certain solutions which allow us opportunities to pivot and invest in new solutions where warranted. The pandemic has certainly harmed our company and industry by increasing expenses and negatively impacting our occupancy goals. Every department will need to stay hyper-focused on their impact on the overall financial health of the company.
Yes, the pandemic has certainly forced even staunch resistors to entertain and explore solutions. While wide and fully integrated adoptions still have challenges, the last year has allowed many to give telehealth the attention and try it deserves. I feel that even the least sophisticated or feature-rich solution can provide significant efficiencies for seniors and health professionals.
Cindy Baier, President and CEO, Brookdale Senior Living
It’s a given that the use of technology became so much more important in 2020 as Brookdale transformed its business model.
We used technology to connect with families and with other associates. We increased our use of telemedicine for our residents. Within sales, we quickly developed new ways of engaging prospects such as virtual tours and were thrilled that new residents moved in even though they had never physically seen the inside of the community.
Early on, we developed and posted videos about every three days to inform seniors, families, prospects, and associates about what actions could be taken to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. We have continued a regular cadence of informational and motivational videos. We developed toolkits that demonstrated the expertise of Brookdale in effective infectious disease controls and made these available to others in the industry because we care about protecting nation’s seniors; every community needs to take steps to help protect, and families need to take steps (if seniors live at home), so education was important. We maintained transparency with residents and families on Covid-19 cases within their specific communities. Facebook noticed and identified some of what Brookdale did as best practices, and also selected Brookdale to be featured as an exemplary leader of social media for Covid-19 response.
As with many other companies, we all became Zoom experts – our regional leaders adapted quickly, able to “visit” the communities they lead effectively and efficiently without having to travel. Corporate associates have been able to continue their work in support of our communities while working from home where possible.
We were an early adopter of the routine use of pulse oximeters to check the oxygen levels of residents when we learned that a lower oxygen level is a symptom of Covid-19. Brookdale’s clinical infection control experts also identified a lotion-like skin protectant that has ingredients which make a hostile surface to the coronavirus as an additional safeguard. This skin protectant was provided to all of Brookdale’s memory care communities, where some residents have a hard time social distancing.
Many of these innovations have become part of Brookdale’s operations and will continue as business improvements. I expect we’ll see more use of telemedicine and increased partnerships with other health organizations. I also see a shift in the number of people who will work from home or in a hybrid model rather than maintaining a full-time work space in a central office.
In general, I see companies becoming much more nimble, and really focusing on what matters most.