GreatCall: Voice apps best approach for seniors

By Neil Versel
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Jitterbug Wireless patient monitoring devices tied to a home-based connectivity hub are supposed to improve the quality of life and to prevent hospital readmissions for the elderly, people with chronic diseases and post-operative patients. But they have one serious flaw.

“They’re great until you go past the mailbox,” noted Madeline Pantalone, vice president for strategy and business development at GreatCall, creator of the Jitterbug cell phone and several wireless health and wellness apps for seniors. Cellular connectivity is a better idea, Pantalone said Wednesday morning during the opening general session of the mHealth Initiative’s Third mHealth Networking conference Wednesday in Rosemont, Ill.

The average user of GreatCall products and services is 68 years old, according to Pantalone, so the Carlsbad, Calif.-based company wants to keep its apps simple. Jitterbug phones, with large buttons and uncluttered screen displays, “are terrible for texting because you have to triple tap, and seniors don’t want that anyway,” Pantalone said.

Pantalone said that 80 percent of seniors’ activity on cell phones is making or receiving calls, not texting, browsing the Web or running smartphone apps. That’s pretty much opposite the trend for younger generations, so GreatCall’s services are mostly voice-to-voice. “We’ve found that voice and IVR-based apps are effective,” Pantalone said.

GreatCall is developing apps for the iPhone and the Google Android platforms—the iPhone version will launch in about a month—but Pantalone promises that the views will be simple so users won’t have to scroll or tap through multiple screens to find what they want.

Pantalone also reported on another interesting data point among its older customer base that runs counter to attitudes of younger people: 38 percent of Jitterbug and GreatCall users surveyed in 2010 expressed a willingness to pay a recurring monthly fee for a health-related service. This explains why the company has been successful despite the fact that Medicare and other health insurers aren’t paying for remote monitoring and mobile wellness services.

“We’re too early to get payer reimbursement on a lot of this,” Pantalone said. “If we wait around for the government to pay for all of this, we’re going to lose this generation of seniors.”