Is it worth paying an expert to help you navigate the health-care system?

Market Watch published an article that highlights the value of hiring an expert- especially as it relates to health care and senior care.

” There is a new cost in retirement and older age — navigating complexity. While managing finances in retirement can be a challenge — surviving the health-care and home-care system can make the most complex portfolio or financial advisor’s Monte Carlo simulation look like a family board game.

When was the last time you had to go to the hospital? Had to organize the complexities of home care for a loved one? How well do you remember the experience? Parts of it are probably something of a blur. We’re as helpless we can possibly be when sick, forced to give ourselves over into the hands of others. Sometimes, the best we can manage through the ordeal of illness is to simply try to keep our heads up.

Old age and chronic illness turn that period of vulnerability into a near-constant state of affairs. Often, older adults and their families can do but nothing but hope that they will be treated by the health-care system with their best interests in mind. Sometimes they won’t be — not because doctors and nurses and therapists and administrative staff aren’t doing the best work they possibly can to help patients, but because a hospital is a massive institution with an endless stream of work flowing through it, not just a place of healing, but an ever-whirring bureaucratic machine. Successfully navigating that complex system is critical to both your or a loved one’s health outcomes as it is in managing the costs of health care.

The complexity of the health-care system plus our rapidly aging population has given rise to a new kind of health professional, the geriatric care manager (or GCM), now officially referred to as an Aging Life Care Professional. GCMs are advocates for older adults. They typically don’t personally provide care themselves. Instead they collect and present information, help to design a care plan, and navigate the health care system to implement and facilitate that plan on behalf of the family that pays them. They are guides for families who must travel the sometimes-bumpy modern road of aging.

In this sense, a GCM is more like a lawyer or a financial advisor than a doctor. A GCM’s value comes primarily from having a large repository of knowledge of a complex system, not necessarily any particular hands-on expertise. Further even from lawyers and financial advisors, there is no defined educational track (yet) for geriatric care management, and a GCM doesn’t need a license (yet) to practice. Although experienced nurses appear to be leading the trek in the business of care coordination and management. Geriatric care management is part of the frontier of the burgeoning advanced service economy that is being driven by an aging population.

How much does navigation expertise cost? Effective expert knowledge never comes cheap. A GCM’s time runs somewhere in the neighborhood of $125-$200 an hour. If you think of geriatric care management simply as help in picking out Dad’s nursing home from a list, that may sound pretty steep, a luxury affordable only to those for whom money is no object. But there could soon come a time that navigating the depths of the health care system without a care manager will seem just as foolhardy as diving into the legal system without a lawyer.

GCMs work toward the holistic well-being of their older adult clients. At the same time, they provide a family with the information to make well-informed decisions about their elder’s care. With the staggeringly high costs involved in making such choices, the difference between a well-informed and a clueless decision can be thousands of dollars, not to speak of the well-being of the care recipient.

Now for a one-question health care pop quiz: Do you know what a hospital case manager is? If you or your loved one winds up in a hospital bed, case managers are the ones who decide when you leave and where you’ll go to next. They have the power to choose which rehab or assisted-living facility your parent will go to. Their number-one responsibility is to open up beds for the next round of sickly individuals.

They do their best to accommodate the specific needs of patients, but with the workload they face, it’s inevitable that their recommendations will not always align with what the patient thinks is best, especially when that patient is an elderly adult with a difficult confluence of issues, preferences and needs.

This is just one example of why GCMs are so important, and perhaps one day will be indispensable. They represent the power of knowledge in a world where we live under the influence of large institutions and complex system that are sometimes too big for us to grasp – just when we may need them the most and ourselves too little for them to notice.”

MIT AgeLab‘s Adam Felts contributed to this article.

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