Senior citizens less likely to use digital health tools, JAMA study finds

By Heather Mack
02:07 am

Senior citizens – by far the largest healthcare consumer base in terms of the cost, duration and intensity of their care – are the least likely to use tools aimed at helping them take a more active role in their health management. 

In a survey study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers looked at the trends in the use of technology and digital health care services among Medicare beneficiaries between 2011 and 2014.

Smartphones, apps, even the internet: most Americans 65 and older just aren’t having it, according to the study, which characterized this group as “the sickest, most expensive and fastest growing segment of the US population.”

Dr. David Levine, a researcher in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Primary Care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston said his research team undertook the study since little is known about how this population actually uses technology.

“There’s a lot of hype in the industry, government and academia about the power of digital health tools,” Levine said in an interview with Health Data Management. “People point to them as almost magical tools for seniors and older adults.”

To see just how seniors might actually be using these so-called magical tools, Levine and his colleagues looked at data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study, a project out of the school of public health at Johns Hopkins University. Notably, the seniors in the NHATS were willing to get on a computer to respond to this annual, in-home, computer-assisted, longitudinal nationally representative survey of community-dwelling Medicare beneficiaries 65 years and older.

While everyone and their grandmother seems to have a cell phone these days (about 80 percent of seniors report having them) seniors aren’t really using them to leverage digital health tools. And while 60 percent regularly use computers, they used digital health at low rates, with only small increases in usage between the study years of 2011 and 2014.

How seniors used the internet fell into four categories: using it to fill prescriptions, contact a clinician, research conditions or deal with insurance issues. Only 16 percent of seniors looked for health information online, and that’s the big group. Only eight percent filled prescriptions online, seven percent contacted a doctor and just five percent handled insurance matters online.

Levine and his colleagues suspect that it’s not that seniors don’t want to use it; they just aren’t user-friendly to their generation.

“Future innovations should focus on usability, adherence and scalability to improve the reach and effectiveness of digital health for seniors,” they write.

This isn’t the first time researchers have found digital health tools aren’t reaching those who could benefit from them the most. Earlier this month, a Commonwealth Fund study observed digital health use in people with low income, and found that technology such as using mobile apps for a variety of conditions was difficult for that group.
Put those two groups together, along with those with less education or who belong to an underrepresented minority group, and the usage rates are even lower.

In conclusion, it’s a little somber.

“Our findings suggest that present-day digital health may not be the best approach to improving the health of seniors and reducing the costs associated with caring for this population,” Levine wrote. 


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