How Senior Living Providers Are Investing in Tech in the Age of Covid-19

Covid-19 has placed a premium on technology, but bringing a community up to the times requires much more than plugging in a router.

With the advent of telehealth and remote conferencing, senior living staff and residents are doing more with their devices than ever before. Where internet access was once seen as an amenity, it is now more like a utility, according to Dusanka Delovska-Trajkova, chief information officer for Rockville, Maryland-based Ingleside.

“It’s the same as electricity or water,” Delovska-Trajkova said during a virtual event series on technology held Monday and hosted by Kisaco Research. “That changed in the last few years, and it definitely changed with the pandemic.”

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But as technology use and appeal grows, so too does the burden on infrastructure andannual budgets. That’s why it’s imperative for senior living providers to carefully plan now for the technology it will use well into the future.

Business case for infrastructure

Any senior living IT executive would tell you that the best-laid plans for technology will fail without the infrastructure to support it. Infrastructure upgrades are not cheap, and not always prioritized in a senior living operator’s budget. That’s why it’s imperative for technology departments to demonstrate the value of those services, according to Janet Lillevold, senior vice president of transformation and HIPAA security officer at Minnetonka, Minnesota-based New Perspective.

“As you’re looking at that financial investment, the ROI for the technology services, you need to build a model so it matches your company’s financial approach,” said Lillevold, who also moderated Monday’s panel discussion. “If you don’t have the finances right so that it can go to your senior leadership and board, then you’re not going to get very far.”

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When leaders at Surprise, Arizona-based Sun Health began planning infrastructure upgrades for the organization’s three life plan communities, they calculated how much revenue and productivity was lost in a typical service outage.

“Once we went through that ROI and ran those numbers past executive leadership … the improvements that needed to be made on the infrastructure side were clear,” said Donny Friday, director of technology for Sun Health. “That was the mechanism we used for communicating why we needed to make certain upgrades or transition to certain new technologies from an infrastructure perspective.”

Joe Velderman, vice president of innovation at Fort Myers, Florida-based Cypress Living, divides the topic of technology into four main building blocks: governance, which includes staffing, policies, procedures and cybersecurity; infrastructure; enterprise applications, such as a CRM or EHR; and data.

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Senior living executives are usually more focused on that fourth block, data; but Velderman believes that can help spur a larger discussion about the cost and benefits of having good technology infrastructure.

“In my 15 or so years working in this industry, I have learned the importance of the word value,” Velderman said. “It’s important for IT people to understand that business model in senior living in order to find the right amount of value in the purchases that you’re making from a technology perspective.”

Determining capabilities

Another challenge in senior living technology is determining which services and uses residents and staff will need in the future.

Providers should start that process by talking to the staff, residents and family members who are using their network, according to Summer Blizzard, vice president of marketing at CHI Living Communities, which is the senior living division of Chicago-based health system CommonSpirit Health.

“When you’re talking to end users, you may be surprised as to the holes and the gaps that you have right now, and the simple fixes that you can make by optimizing your current processes,” Blizzard said during Monday’s panel.

In figuring out what technology to implement in CHI Living’s communities, Blizzard looks to other sectors and to tech giants like Amazon. And while not all of that tech is ready to implement in senior living today, it’s still worth keeping in mind as the preferences of residents and their families evolve, she added.

That is an approach that Ingleside takes, as well.

“Senior living organizations have focused so much on perfecting the collection and protecting of clinical data, but my view is that maybe we have forgotten to collect and act upon the customer experience data that informs every engagement the resident has with us,” Delovska-Trajkova said. “There’s a lot to be learned from [other industries] in the consumer engagement space.”

In addition to watching companies like Uber or Apple, Cypress Living’s Velderman also immerses himself in technology podcasts, magazines and news. Again, it’s all about keeping a finger on the pulse of the future.

“My [parents] are big into some of the smart-home stuff right now … and they’re going to be really disappointed one day if they choose to move into a place like Cypress Cove and we’re not able to support that for them,” Velderman said. “It’s important to look 10 years ahead at what some of our future residents are going to have as an expectation.”

But as important as long-term planning is, it can only go so far, and providers should also be ready to pivot at a moment’s notice. Just look at what happened with Covid-19 and the pandemic, Friday said.

“We have to be prepared to adjust at the drop of a hat when it comes to business needs from an IT perspective,” he added.

Picking a partner

Senior living technology plans often hinge on the ability of technology partners to deliver that service. But with a growing number of vendors to choose from, it’s not always easy to pick the right partner.

When choosing a technology partner, Cypress Living looks first for capability, then for desire in working with the company. Cypress vets any potential partner with a flurry of questions about the company’s previous work, and while senior living experience is a plus, it’s also not necessary.

“We’re in the middle right now of a Wi-Fi expansion project on our campus … and I brought in a number of different contractors and interviewed them,” Velderman said. “At the end of the day we went with a partner who had a lot of experience, but not a lot of experience in senior living.”

Many providers see the price of the service and the size of the company offering it as the two primary criteria when selecting technology partners. But that is not all senior living companies should think about, according to Delovska-Trajkova. Other qualifications for tech partners include relevant experience and culture.

And at CHI Living Communities, new tech vendors are selected through a structured RFP process that assesses multiple companies. Sun Health goes through a similar process. The idea is that, by casting a wide net, senior living providers can find the best fit for the role and avoid any surprises down the line.

“If you’re missing something when you’re in that selection process that can come back to haunt you,” Friday said. “The critical nature of that element of picking vendors is making sure that you know exactly what your criteria are.”

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