Elderly still not using apps for health, but tomorrow's seniors might

By Neil Versel

Neil_Versel_LargeAs baby boomers age, many are taking greater control over their own healthcare than any generation before them, and mobile technology is be a big part of that movement. But today's elderly might not be interested in gadgets and apps.

"Seniors aren't using apps for health," healthcare technology consultant and futurist Mary Cain, managing director of San Francisco-based HT3, said at last week's Health 2.0 Conference in that same city. In fact, that's pretty much how Cain led off a session she moderated on digital tools for healthy aging, in case any of the many startup companies and venture capitalists in attendance had any wrong ideas.

Calling someone "senior" or "elderly" is tricky business in the context of healthcare, and those terms do not mean what they did a generation or two ago. Average life expectancy at birth in the U.S. hit 78.5 years in 2009, up from 76.8 in 2000 and 73.7 in 1980. Turning 65 makes you eligible for Medicare, but it sure doesn't make you elderly in today's America. There's a big difference between being 65 and being 85.

While I admittedly don't talk to as many poor, uneducated people as I perhaps should in this line of work, just about every 60-something I know now has a smartphone and is just as willing to download apps and send text messages as younger adults. But that's not so much the case with those over the age of 80. That might change as the boomer generation hits their 70s and 80s in the middle of next decade, but I can't imagine my 93-year-old grandmother ever having a smartphone.

(You may remember that I was looking for home monitoring technology for her earlier this year, but my family determined that even the most basic touch-screen tablet would be too confusing for her. We were leaning toward a "passive" wearable monitor that would automatically summon help in case of a fall, but we eventually moved her into an apartment building where all residents are issued "active" monitoring pendants that require the wearer to push a button – not exactly practical when the person is unconscious or disoriented. Old, tired technology that somehow is considered acceptable, just like so many other aspects of healthcare. But I digress.)

Sure, there are some companies selling gadgets for aging in place that have made apps, but that's not their primary line of business and the apps aren't for the seniors themselves, but rather for clinicians and caregivers.

Laura Mitchell, VP of business development for GrandCare Systems, maker of communication and monitoring systems for independent living since 2006, said that the West Bend, Wis.-based company has no immediate plans to create an Android, iOS or Amazon Kindle version of its software. GrandCare's technology for delivering news feeds and communications from clinicians, family and friends and for collecting "observations of daily living" and vital signs from patients is proprietary code written in Linux, and that works just fine for now, Mitchell said.

I just hope there is interoperability with electronic health records at some point because the last thing healthcare needs is more data silos. But the EHR vendors need to get serious about breaking down the silos, too. I think they are heading in the right direction, though we might not be there until Stage 3 of "meaningful use," which will not begin before 2016.

I've now been to four of the six annual Health 2.0 events since Matthew Holt and Dr. Indu Subaiya launched the movement in 2007. Each time, I've seen a little bit of the breathless hype fade away and a little more realism set in. It's no longer a novelty for older Americans to have mobile phones, but marketing smartphone apps to them isn't like selling games to younger people.

The time for apps will come. Just don't count on the World War II generation being your best customers.