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The pandemic has upended the lives of far too many people to count, but perhaps none more so than seniors. Having a full year of the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, Reneé Buckingham, Segment President of Humana’s Care Delivery Organization, including CenterWell Senior Primary Care and Conviva Care Solutions, reacted to four questions about how Covid-19 has affected senior-focused healthcare:

How would you assess the mental health of seniors one year into the pandemic?    

The disproportionate physical toll that the pandemic has taken on seniors has been well documented, with about 80% of seniors accounting for all Covid-19 deaths.  The mental effects, however, are still playing out and will likely continue well past the pandemic.

While 24% of seniors overall have reported feeling anxious or depressed during the pandemic, there are subset groups of seniors who are experiencing these effects in even greater numbers, including women (28%), Hispanics (33%), those with income less than $25,000 each year (37%), and those who are less educated (29%).

Connecting with these seniors for their mental and physical health needs is critical, and simply having physicians with a brick-and-mortar presence where they live offers access they might not be used to receiving. We have committed to establishing many of our CenterWell and Conviva facilities in medically underserved areas and, with our care teams — which include a social worker, care coach and behavioral therapist — identifying the full range of our seniors’ health needs and providing the resources to address them.

There have been concerns since the beginning of the pandemic that seniors would avoid doctors’ visits. Has that been your experience?

It turned out to be the opposite, in our experience. We knew from the start that seniors would be reluctant to go to the doctor for routine care out of concern of exposure to the virus or, in some cases, would be willing — but unable — to make it to the doctor because of lack of transportation.  We quickly put into place alternatives for how our seniors could maintain their care, whether that was virtual or, in some cases, curbside.  What surprised us, however, was that our seniors’ number of visits would rise; 87% of CenterWell patients made one or more visits to their local center in 2020, compared to 75% in 2019. In the case of annual wellness visits (AWV), 94% of at-risk patients had a comprehensive AWV in 2020, up from 89% in 2019.

While there are a variety of explanations for the increase, we know that, in general, our patients felt comfortable — both physically and emotionally — visiting our centers.  We believe that keeping up with their primary care visits during the pandemic will be beneficial to their long-term health.

For patients wanting to minimize their risk of Covid-19 infection, telehealth became a vital option. CenterWell conducted 9,453 virtual visits and 29,383 telephonic visits over the course of 2020 — a substantial increase in the use of these services from 2019.

Are there any lessons learned from the pandemic that can inform how providers treat seniors post-pandemic?

Definitely. First off, the pandemic is a good reminder of the social benefit of a physician visit for seniors.  With so many of seniors’ daily interactions curbed over the last year — going to the bank, shopping for groceries and socializing with friends — their visits with their primary care doctor may be the only human interactions they have for days on end. Taking an interest in their activities and spending time discussing non-medical matters is an important aspect of the visit.

Second, seniors get a bad rap for being technologically challenged. The truth is, we saw many seniors embrace telehealth enthusiastically and successfully. Some cannot access the technologies needed or have certain physical limitations and disabilities that limit their access to video platforms, requiring audio-only contact. We will continue to offer telehealth as an option, including audio-only, for all kinds of interactions with our patients, from meeting their medical needs to offering activities to combat social isolation.

Finally, there is an opportunity to ensure seniors are always prepared, whether it’s a new pandemic, an uptick in variants in the current pandemic, or even cold and flu season.  That means ensuring that they are up to date with their vaccinations; have a supply of masks at home; maintain sufficient, shelf-stable food on hand; and have the technological means and know-how to connect virtually with others in case of a lockdown.

While we hope seniors don’t have a need for this type of readiness again, if the pandemic has taught us anything over the past year, it’s the value of being prepared.

CenterWell Senior Primary Care is the new brand for what was formerly known as Partners in Primary Care and Family Physicians Group. What is the rationale for the re-brand?

It’s part of a larger Humana effort to describe and connect a range of the company’s health care services offerings. The first company-owned care services to adopt the new CenterWell brand are its payer-agnostic senior-focused primary care facilities, which previously operated as Partners in Primary Care in several states, and as Family Physicians Group in the Orlando area.

As the population ages and, with it, the need for primary care, we wanted a name that would be consistent across the country and in all new markets. CenterWell plans to establish up to 20 new centers in 2021 and 2022, and the new brand allows us the flexibility to add additional payer-agnostic services under it, if we choose, including offerings in the pharmacy, home care or hospice areas.

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