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Golden opportunity for digital healthcare: The silver surfers in emerging markets

6 mins read

Globally, the population is aging rapidly with an increased life expectancy due to improved health, better living conditions and lower birth rates. It is estimated that by 2050 more than a quarter of the population in Asia-Pacific will be 60 years or older.

In China alone, the population of people over 60 years of age is expected to reach 483 million by 2050 which is approximately 30% of its entire population (China National Committee). Japan is already considered a ‘super-aged’ society with more than 20% of its population 65 and older, and countries such as Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand are following closely behind.

An aging population poses particular challenges for society and the economy. Many elderly people, especially in rural areas, battle with isolation and loneliness and the need for long-term care can result in pressures on healthcare and social services.

However, whilst there are challenges, there are also opportunities that cater to a ‘silver economy’. Many of the Silver Generation (aged 65 and older) and the ‘older professionals’ (aged 45-64) reside in the middle and upper classes and are becoming increasingly health conscious. And due to their high spending power and having more time on their hands it is anticipated that, for example, silver spending in China will triple from $750 billion to $2.1 trillion (World data lab).

Contrary to stereotypes, the silver generation is also increasing their engagement with digital technology. One reason for the increased acceptance of digital in Asia is filial piety, the concept that children care for the older generation. Children teach the older generations to adopt and use technology to keep connected, especially when living apart. In Japan, for example, the percentage of those aged 50 and older who own a smartphone has increased from 15% in 2015 to 44% in 2018. In South Korea, in the same time period, the percentage increased from 74% to 91%. The China Academy of Information and Communication Technology estimates that one third of Chinese seniors have more than 80% of their data traffic on WeChat. This provides multiple opportunities for brands to target the silver generation digitally, which we can see happening in the consumer world. For example, there are dating apps specifically for use by the silver generation and the Chinese e-commerce app Taobao has released a version specifically for elderly users. The needs and spending power of the silver generation should therefore also be considered by the pharma industry when developing new (digital) offerings.

There are, of course, some challenges with lower digital literacy among the elderly and health inequalities, especially in poorer nations. The WHO published a handbook (ICOPE Handbook App – Integrated care for older people) which offers “tools as an approach that helps key stakeholders in health and social care to understand, design and implement a person-centred and coordinated model of care”. Government initiatives in China have established integrated care systems for the elderly which are aligned to the WHO guidelines to improve care access. Equally, government supported programs are rolled out to ensure that the elderly are not left behind in the digital transformation. For example, in Japan, there is a strong belief that technology is essential to improving healthcare and delivering more personalized healthcare services, especially for their aging population. This realization has led to an emphasis on digitalizing patient data and utilizing AI analytics to deliver more cost-efficient care.

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Digital technology can bridge the health inequality gap and improve care for elderly

The silver generation are generally motivated to engage with their own health; they are willing to pay for healthcare and they will utilize the available technology to do so. An analysis by Accenture showed that Singaporeans aged 55 years and older demonstrated an increase in their use of technology to manage their own health: They use websites, mobile apps, electronic health records, social media and wearables to monitor their cholesterol, weight and physical activity.

The pandemic has seen a surge in the elderly population staying connected via digital means. Digital platforms have not only enabled grandparents to stay in touch with their families, but telehealth has also ensured continued care for the elderly who are at risk and are shielding, thus convincing the silver generation that digital healthcare solutions can complement the human touch healthcare and reduce complete isolation.

Care organizations have moved many of their services online as virtual support and have provided elderly patients with digital tools that will help them monitor their own health and connect them directly with the HCP. These digital support systems enable the silver generation to ‘age-in-place’, i.e. at home or in their own community instead of in a nursing home, which has become an increasing trend. The digital tools are designed to support the self-management of chronic conditions such as cardiac diseases or diabetes by using mHealth wearables, monitors and sensors. The aim is to empower elderly patients by providing comfort and convenience which are important benefits to digital healthcare solutions. Some care providers even offer brief in-person or remote training sessions and have ambassadors to coach the elderly and their families on the use of telehealth technology, thereby acknowledging that there might be challenges with digital literacy. These programmes have greatly helped facilitate the uptake of digital healthcare solutions among the elderly.

Listening to the needs of the silver generation

In market research, we often tend to dismiss the over 60s age bracket as we feel their opinion is less relevant in shaping an offering aimed at longevity. Similarly, tech start-ups have historically overlooked older adults in favor of Millennials and Gen Z users and we see that many existing tech products and digital solutions are not designed to deliver value for older audiences.

However, given the growth and their spending capacity, the industry will have to change this mind-set and pay attention to the needs and demands of the silver generation and be conscious of providing more inclusive designs for digital solutions. For example, the younger generation might prefer a different UX/UI (user experience / user interface) to the silver generation and distribution channels need to be selected carefully to be able to reach the silver generation outside of just Instagram or YouTube.

A simple change of font size or a simpler app navigation might hugely improve product perception for the silver generation. Other limitations and needs of the elderly, such as changes in motor, sensory and mental skills, should also feed into the development of a product so that it can meet their needs. Another example is the use of clear contrast colours to acknowledge deteriorating vision among the elderly.

The importance of family and children caring for the elderly in Asia is integral to the increasing popularity of digital offerings that connect parents with their children. The Chinese Taobao shopping app easily links parent’s accounts with their children and even offers the option for children to pay for their parents’ purchase, supporting the need of filial piety and connectivity.

Pharma and tech companies that meet the needs and challenges of the elderly population when developing digital healthcare solutions will be better positioned to capture the underinvested silver economy.

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