An unusual mix: seniors and healthcare podcasts

Last December, “Saturday Night Live” made Medicare’s tech-savvy help tools the butt of its joke.

In a satirical commercial, one female senior, sitting in her wallpapered living room, a pink iPod around her neck, says, “If you like, you can even sign up for an RSS feed and changes to the policy will be e-mailed directly to you. Or better yet, have weekly Medicare podcasts sent directly to your MP3 player. Now that takes all the confusion out of it.”

And even though “SNL” mocked some of the tools used to educate seniors about Medicare, unique strategies have long been employed to get consumer information out.

Proponents of the different outreach methods contend that uncommon tactics might get the information to seniors, an age group that the government and groups have had great difficulties contacting. Recently, several groups have utilized podcasts to publicize information about the Medicare prescription-drug program.

However, only 8 percent of the adults who have accessed the Internet have also listened to or downloaded a podcast, according to Jupiter Research, a group that follows the impact of consumer technologies on business. Of the people who have downloaded a podcast, only 9.6 percent are 55 or older.

Furthermore, most podcasts on the Medicare drug benefit emerged after much of the confusion about the entitlement subsided earlier this year.

Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) recently released his 10th podcast to expand on new benefits offered under the program. Leslie Norwalk, acting head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), joined Dole on the podcast.

“The thing that you know now is that there’s a lot of information that will be coming to seniors and others. Enrollment starts Nov. 15 this year,” Dole says in the podcast.

And Dole isn’t alone. Tommy Thompson, a former secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, has also come out with several podcasts touting the benefits of Medicare services.

“Think about your options and talk it over with your family,” said Thompson on one of the podcasts. “Be sure to take advantage of Medicare’s benefits, both the new drug benefit and Medicare’s preventative care services.”

The NAACP, joining with actress and author Ruby Dee, has also released a podcast advising its members to sign up for the drug benefit. In addition, former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) has a series of podcasts about various healthcare topics.

But podcasts aren’t the most extreme form of outreach to seniors regarding their healthcare.

Almost three years ago, former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and other congressmen called on CMS to cancel an advertising campaign that used a blimp to promote 1-800-MEDICARE.

However, then-CMS administrator Tom Scully refused to cut off the $600,000 Medicare campaign, saying that the blimp generated free press and got the word out about the newly added toll-free number.

Scully said he got a lot of criticism for using a blimp to promote 1-800-MEDICARE, but “seniors’ calls tripled” because of the campaign.

Scully supports the idea of using podcasts: “[There’s] no bad form of outreach for seniors. Seniors are hard to reach. [Podcasts may] reach their kids,” he said, who are likely to help their parents sign up.

Critics of podcasts say this approach overlooks poor beneficiaries, who are unlikely to have access to a computer.

Medicare Rights Center President Robert Hayes said podcasts are an “extreme” tool to educate seniors. He joked: “Skywriting would be good.”

“The folks that need assistance the most are least likely to know what an iPod is,” Hayes said. “You have to search pretty far to find a significant number of people with Medicare using an iPod. There are probably several hundred more effective ways to reach out and inform people.”

However, many people do not know about programs and benefits offered by the government. The State Children’s Health Insurance Program has not enrolled thousands of its qualified beneficiaries. And many of Medicare’s beneficiaries who would qualify for the low-income subsidy program have not signed up. It’s been a constant struggle getting the word to many of the agency’s beneficiaries, who are old and/or poor and have difficulty using a computer or understanding reading materials.

In addition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released two reports last spring showing that CMS communications about Medicare have been rife with problems and need improvement. The agency’s “Medicare & You” handbook also contained errors.

Not to mention that this year the outreach campaign will be “much, much more abbreviated,” said Jeff Nelligan, director of media affairs for CMS. Outreach will be dependent largely on communication from pharmacists, doctors, state agencies and other groups that work regularly with seniors.

But Nelligan thought the podcasts are a “great idea.”

“We actually have [thought about producing a podcast], but it’s just something that we haven’t done,” Nelligan said. “Those types of tools are valuable.”

Over the past year, the Center for Medicare Advocacy has uploaded eight podcasts on its website with information on the drug benefit and changes to Medicare Part B premiums. An average of 250 listeners are accessing each podcast and about 45 people have subscribed to the updates, “which are very, very small numbers in the podcast world,” according to the center’s Publications Coordinator Matthew Shepard. But he said the numbers have gone up and will continue to go up as the center consistently creates more podcasts.

“We are trying to reach that next generation,” Shepard said, referring to the generation “that is caring for the generation that is concerned” and students studying health policy, whom he called “future advocates.”