Telecare Soapbox: Tesco Telecare – How far away?

This item by Paul Gee, Chief Executive of the UK’s Telecare Services Association (TSA), was originally published Autumn 2007 in the TSA’s magazine.

It’s not if – but when – major retailers move into this space. And a touch of retail therapy may just be the boost that takes Telecare and Telehealth to the next level. Ubiquity. But could it really happen and if so how could the service possibly operate?

The major players in the high street are smart. Very smart. They, before most, actively seek to identify markets with growth potential as consumer habits move, preferences shift and demographics change. And they are swift to allocate shelf space and substantial marketing funds to promoting product that makes money. But surely not in this market I hear you shout!

Well consider for a moment how it could happen. There are natural candidates. Boots* for example. A highly trusted brand in the personal care market. With education and help in store, consumers themselves – or more likely their friends relatives or carers – could choose a Telecare product (or range of products) to meet their need. And just as with a mobile phone they are also able to choose their service provider too. In store, make a reasoned choice of provider depending on geographical coverage, cost and service level. Back home, armed with clear set up instructions, the kit is plugged in – a subsequent high touch phone call agrees the monitoring and response arrangements and suddenly Telecare is happening. Why not?

So is this threat or opportunity? TSA members will have differing views, but the challenge is to prepare for the day when it happens and develop a business model and strategy accordingly. Just don’t say it won’t happen. Originally, the banks did. But you can now buy a wide range of Tesco** branded financial products – in store and off-the-page. Closer examination of course will reveal that the credit card, car or home insurance is actually supplied and backed by a major institution. Supermarkets were initially regarded as non-threatening (it couldn’t possibly happen!) by the banks. Now they are significant channels to consumers and the banks fall over themselves to access the supermarkets’ customers in this way. Still believe it won’t happen here?

These guys have real marketing muscle. The majors are really in touch with the needs of their customers. From information collected through their loyalty card programmes, they probably have the ultimate data mining capability – it gives them a depth of understanding way beyond any government body, local or national. So they have the information, the brand and the resources to reach consumers. And they will use their power if the financial returns are attractive.

For specialist needs – high dependency care in our terms – professional assessment and support will always be necessary. So the traditional provision in sheltered accommodation and distributed alarms to high risk groups will continue. Indeed it will undoubtedly grow along traditional lines as now. But the contention is that private consumers, not the state, will fund and fuel the next step change in Telecare and Telehealth.

The Department of Health anticipates that over half of the projected 1.4m users of Telehealth will be through positive consumer choice. For example, the “worried well” consume health services even though they have no real need for concern. Telehealth equipment is being trialled at several commercial Fitness Centres as an added value offering so the users of the gym/ pool can monitor their vital signs, their state of health – not sickness.

Self care and expert patient strategies which are now so central in government thinking will gain increasing momentum as the messages gain awareness and credibility with professionals and consumers alike.

The challenge to current service providers is to begin to plan for the consumer revolution. It may not arrive any-time-soon nor initially in great volumes, but arrive it will. So what would be the impact on your local business model? How well would it stand the pressure, be it threat or opportunity?

The history of the mobile phone market presents some very interesting parallels. The first equipment was used only by the military and captains of industry. An executive car or truck was needed to carry the kit, especially the battery. Functionality was very limited, costs were prohibitive, sound quality was poor. In the mid 80s, with new smaller equipment and better communication networks, large and small businesses alike identified the benefit for their senior people. Communication was analogue not digital. Costs were still high and functionality limited. But it was the beginning of the mobile networks as we know them. In 1990 there were 2.8m users with a predicted market of 12m in the UK. Consumers have broken that prediction many times over. Consumers, not business, drove the growth way beyond the suppliers wildest original forecasts. The mobile phone is now an essential, a need to have – not a nice to have. From a simple voice communicator, through text, still photographs, video, MP3 player and now to mobile internet device. Where next – a Telecare/ Telehealth application perhaps?

Still believe that Tesco Telecare won’t happen?

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* Boots: Major drugstore/pharmacy chain for non-UK readers.

** Tesco: Dominant supermarket chain in UK, now expanding into other countries. It has been estimated that 1 pound in 8 spent in the UK is spent in Tesco’s.

Categories: Soapbox.