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Aging services needs vendors -- commercialism is just fine

Wow – twice in a week, accusations of ‘commercialism’.  An epiphany – occasionally I have them. The backdrop: In Incident A, a future topic I am discussing at an aging services event was (at least temporarily) classified as ‘commercial’ versus ‘educational’ because vendor executives were to be on the panel, jeopardizing the continuing education credit that attendees might get. Then, the very next day, Incident B: a proposed slide deck was critiqued by (different) organizers with the recommendation to remove slides that had many vendor logos. Why? Because it might be perceived by sponsors as commercials for those vendors – again jeopardizing continuing education credits.

Continuing education for aging services professionals – what’s the conflict?  I made a fuss in each of these examples and all may be well. Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have heard this (mostly at events in which I present slides). What's going on with this? Think Geriatric Care Managers, geriatric social workers, nurses and case managers, home care, home health care, and on and on.   Most of the folks I speak with in these industries are reluctant to mention, let alone endorse, any specific vendor for fear of ‘conflicts of interest’ accusations, actual or imagined. Sometimes these fears are contractual (as with the sponsors of their events) and sometimes they are simply quick reactions that are not cast in cement and we all move on.

There is a serious structural problem here – consider the analogies.  Imagine that you are a building contractor and are working with an architect.  Imagine that it is time to lay out the plans, review them and get the place built.  The contractor says, logically, please provide a list of suppliers that you prefer for this job. Says the architect – oh, I can’t do that, I would be perceived as too commercial – use whoever you want. You are a surgeon and it is time to pick up your scalpel, but the nurse says that it’s not possible, because to select and name a device supplier is too commercial. And forget about mentioning device manufacturers when you’re training other surgeons – you are spreading perceptions of commercialism.

Vendors are the backbone of all services. Let us be clear: Without vendors/suppliers and service providers, there would be no services, not health, not home care, not building, not HVAC, and most especially, not aging services. All need revenue, all are paid -- even the non-profits pay salaries. Vendors pay the exhibit hall bills, they fit up the buildings with networks, they stock the spare parts, they provide the home care supplies -- you get the picture.  Training professionals with continuing education credits is exactly the right place to talk about vendors.  Vendors, in fact, should be top of mind when deciding on curriculum in all aging-related services programs – college, post-grad, etc.  Otherwise, as happens far too often in this industry, a reluctance to learn about vendors – especially technology vendors – keeps seniors in technology darkness.

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Providing excellent, efficient, and ethical services is the way all enterprises succeed. Many non-profits have successful businesses and even compete for customers, clients, patients, or whatever the customers are called. Be they profit on non-profit they should all strive to provide excellent, efficient, and ethical services. The only difference between them is that the investors and stockholders of the for-profit company will make or lose money on their own behalf and pay taxes when they do make money and also cover the losses when the don’t. Non-profit companies can solicit donations if they lose money via inefficiencies that are tax deductible for the donors and spend excess receipts however they see fit, and they will not pay taxes. We must all judge the quality of the products and services as well as the quality of the provider when we make recommendations, and referrals.

Commercial products and services that do not exist today will absolutely be needed by older adults as we progress. Rather than eschew commercial solutions the communities, institutions, and organizations that currently serve older adults need to advocate for their constituents.

We know from the past 25 years of technology transformation in the rest of the world that it is only when the customers' needs are understood and put ahead of the pure profit motives of the vendors that real solutions are developed. And that is good for everyone.

Why do competitors'devices work together? Because the customer demands it! Who will be the voice of the older-adult customer?

We should not be surprised that new technology misses the mark when those most familiar with the requirements will not engage in the innovative process as advocates and even value-added channel partners.

I remember when we first started using the internet for commercial purposes and the .edu's and .gov's were very disdainful of using the "pure internet" to do business. In those days ".com" was a dirty word. It feels like we are in a similar place here. Was it Mark Twain who said "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes"? Here we go...Great piece Laurie, thanks!

Indeed! Continuing education in any field ensures that industry professionals have “state of the art” information and knowledge. “Commercial” technology products and services are already having dramatic impacts on senior care and will continue to impact (and dare I write “change”) how aging services professionals do their work and deliver the best services. More information (rather than less information) about vendors and specific technology capabilities will help aging services professionals make better decisions for the organizations and clients. Hiding vendors’ names or only speaking in generalities leaves out an important part in developing and maintaining expertise in one’s field.

Great analogy! I want my surgeon to know about every brand of scalpel out there, as well as to have researched, tried and evaluated all of them. Then I’ll feel comfortable knowing that she picked the best scalpel for my surgery before she uses it on me, rather than finding out while she using it.

Michaela Sweatt
Nurture Connect

I had the opportunity to see the logo-infested slide you mention (or one similar) at one of your conference presentations late last year. I've spent lots of time trying to find the darn thing in my notes. As a Geriatric Social Worker in a medium-sized city, experts in aging technology have not yet become a "thing". That leaves us, as IT-impaired professionals, to fend for ourselves. Believe me, we know the "we don't endorse any product/service" line like the back of our hands but, because there is such a divide between the private and public sectors (and never the twain shall meet), our ignorance becomes a barrier to our clients and families. I honestly have no idea where to start the search for some of these technologies and there is no one to whom I may refer families. It's a shame because technology represents a real option for folks but not if we can't tell them about it. What shall we do?

Dear Conference Organizers...PLEASE let her mention the company names and products. It gives us a place to start. Give us the CEUs and let us be on our merry (and professional) way.
Thank you.
P.S. Age-less marketing of these products means you can't just Google "Gadgets for Grannies" and find what you need.

As someone who managed a not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) organization for 10 years, I absolutely cringe at the self-righteousness of some folks in the non-profit world. The notion that being not-for-profit conveys an aura of ethical, humanitarian behavior is silly. Was the company I ran ethical? Absolutely. Did we hand out profits to share holders at the end of the year? No. Did we make a lot of money and pay good salaries and benefits? You bet. I know heads of not-for-profits making very high six figure salaries and lots of perks. Being not-for-profit is not a religious experience.

Thanks for keeping us honest, Laurie. :-)


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