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Older Australians are loyal patients. But are you their provider of choice?

March 5, 2020

    Editor's note: This blog was updated with additional graphics on 12 March 2020.

    Globally, health care costs rise sharply with age. In Australia, average expenditure on geriatrics, defined as those over 65, is three times greater than for those under the age of 65. This is compounded by the fact that by 2057, 22% of the Australian population is expected to be over 65 years old, compared to 15% today. That's a big jump. Without a doubt, elderly patients are a growing population that is both expensive to manage and increasingly challenging to treat.

    Toolkit: Understand Australian consumer preferences for surgical care

    But we tend to incorrectly think of the elderly as one homogenous group. In reality, the geriatric population can be broken down into a number of different subgroups, such as by age band, disease burden, severity of frailty, or level of mobility. For instance, almost a third of geriatrics in Australia report having three or more chronic diseases and a quarter of geriatrics are frail, but many also live relatively healthy lives and only occasionally require medical attention to help maintain their active lifestyles. For instance, one in eight older Australians are engaged in employment, education, or training, and 39% of older Australians self-assess their health as being very good or excellent.

    A significantly more loyal cohort of patients

    Most strikingly, looking at Advisory Board's most recent health care consumer research and data, we have consistently found that geriatrics are more loyal to their health care providers than any other age group.

    In the United States, we refer to patients over 65 as "health care's traditionalists," as they return to the same providers over and over again and are the least likely to break a referral. In Australia, 84% of elderly surgical patients are likely to choose the same surgeon again in a moment of need—compared to just 66% of patients under 65.

    How to become older patients' destination of choice

    Over the past year, there has been negative news coverage of Australian private providers and geriatric care. One opinion article even alleged that private health systems avoid treating the elderly due to the high costs of caring for such a complex patient population. This has hurt the reputation of providers who have the expertise and capacity to meet growing demand from this patient group, arguably not only benefitting their own bottom line but also the overall Australian health system.

    To understand how to attract and retain elderly patients, we asked 2,000 surgical care patients in Australia what drove their health care decisions. The data reveal two clear areas providers can focus on to become a top choice for elderly patients.

    1. Build strong relationships with primary care because geriatrics trust their GP's opinion more than most. We found that two thirds of elderly patients (64%) who sought surgical care relied on their GP for information on potential providers. Younger patients, on the other hand, consult more diverse sources of information when researching surgeons and hospitals, such as the provider's website (28%) or friends and family (19%), along with their GP's recommendation (54%).

    2. Improve the patient experience during a hospital stay because geriatrics appreciate and reward quality of service more than any other attribute of their care experience. Our survey found that 50% of the geriatric patients who underwent surgery cited their surgeon's quality of service as their top loyalty driver, followed by other factors such as quality of care (18%) and cost (8%). In comparison, 31% of patients under 65 reward quality of service, but in general this group's loyalty is driven by a more diverse set of factors than their older counterparts.

    We know that the population is ageing, but what's clear from this data is that older Australians have a distinct set of preferences, decision drivers, and expectations when it comes to where to go for care. With competition amongst providers increasing, Australian providers should ensure they have a strong strategy in place to attract this loyal and growing patient group.

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