Utilizing Digital Health to Engage Today’s Senior Population

The senior population is not as technophobic as perhaps they once were. About 80 percent of seniors have cell phones and 60 percent regularly use computers. It’s not even uncommon to find older Americans utilizing social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook as a means to keep in touch with friends and family.

Yet when it comes to digital health, the senior foray into the tech stratosphere seems to halt significantly. Despite being “the sickest, most expensive and fastest growing segment of the US population”, recent study results published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that senior citizens are not embracing digital health technology. What makes the conclusion so troublesome is that the senior demographic is the population that could seem to benefit most from what digital health can offer.

So with all signs pointing to digital health’s capability to make a big impact on senior health, what’s at the root of this group’s reluctance to embrace it and what can be done to reverse the trend?

The Benefits of Digital Health for Seniors

David Levine, MD, a researcher in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Primary Care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and one of the authors of the JAMA study told Health Data Management, “There’s a lot of hype in industry, government and academia about the power of digital health tools. People point to them as almost magical tools for seniors and older adults.”

Yet, the potential benefits digital health affords seniors, if utilized, can’t be overlooked. Encouraging seniors to be more proactive about their health, digital health helps to bridge the gaps in care, connecting patients with physicians and caregivers outside of the clinic walls.

“Seniors need to get on the technological bandwagon and become an integral part of their own health care and health care delivery,” says Sara J. Czaja, scientific director of the Center on Aging at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.

Many senior patients spend time calling their doctors and nurses trying to get appointments or more information about their condition or alternatively, show up at health clinics or ERs. In some cases, many do nothing at all, hoping a friend or family member take notice and step in.

There are many ways in which digital health can help seniors become more informed, proactive participants in their health, from giving them access to more information about health conditions and how best to manage them, to maintaining an EHR for streamlined access to personal health data, or communicating with doctors directly through video, email or text. Patients can also send vital physical information like blood pressure and glucose levels digitally to their physician, find and access medical specialists and order prescriptions online.

With the role of caregiver often falling to nearby relatives, finding a balance between taking care of a loved one and maintaining a personal life can be challenging. Technology can be a viable solution to keep seniors connected to relatives, caregivers and healthcare providers, taking some of the burden off of loved ones.

The idea of home-based care or “aging in place” is also gaining traction with many seniors having expressed a desire to receive more health care at home versus a hospital and 90 percent wanting to live at home as they age. According to experts in aging, “more seniors could stay in their residences longer if they installed several of today’s technologies.”

A Reluctance to Engage

So what is the hesitancy among seniors to embrace digital health? It’s hard to say, as according to Levine, little is known about how this population actually uses digital health technology.

But, many factors can hold seniors back including, a lack of access to information or educational resources about digital health technologies; anxiety about using computers, tablets or smartphones; problems with hand-eye coordination due to the aging process or a chronic condition like arthritis; financial constraints; and privacy concerns.

Some seniors may just prefer good old human-to-human contact. When they have a health concern, they want to talk to a physician or nurse in person about it. However, the role of digital health is to help increase engagement opportunities and support care for seniors and others who need it the most. Not meant to be a substitute for human interaction, the goal of digital health is to enhance it.

One study revealed that many seniors would prefer to be educated about medical mobile monitoring devices by physicians themselves. According to Laurie Orlov, founder and principal analyst at Aging in Place Technology Watch who conducted the study, “The number-one person elderly people want to train them on these technologies is the doctor–the least likely person to train them.”

Ways to Improve Digital Health Access for Seniors

Patients trust their doctors and nurses—their recommendation holds a lot of weight. A physician or nurse who can make the time to work with senior patients to help them see the value in digital health and understand the potential, long-term benefits it can provide, would go a long way.

Patient education is key. Health coaches working with senior clients have the benefit of being able to work closely with patients to develop wellness strategies and goals that incorporate useful digital health tools. Coaches can also provide ongoing guidance to seniors, ensuring their clients are well-acclimated and comfortable using the technology.

Digital health innovation also needs to be thoughtful and inclusive of all levels of access and more accurately hone in on where patients are at from a technological standpoint. An issue brief published by The Commonwealth Fund found that, “Fewer than half of the more than 1,000 healthcare related-apps reviewed by researchers appeared to be useful for their potential for patient engagement while also offering high quality and safety.” Building a smartphone app in the hopes of engaging an 80-year old patient may not be the most practical use of digital health technology or effective way to reach that patient. Technology that integrates a myriad of communication options, such as email and phone calls, which seniors may be more comfortable using, will have the biggest impact.  

Developers should continue to factor in the physical limitations of the aging population such as arthritic joints and fading eyesight by designing more user-friendly technologies tailored to meet senior needs.

In addition to tech-savvy family and friends, there are many organizations that seniors can seek out for guidance navigating the digital world. Many local senior centers, libraries and colleges will offer classes to help seniors boost their tech skills. National resources such as SeniorNet, Oasis Connections, Lifelong Learning Institutes (LLIs) and AARP Tek Workshops also offer useful technology training that will help seniors build their tech confidence and skillset.

The potential benefits that digital health can provide seniors, from creating more pathways to care to helping reduce individual and national health care costs, are too great to ignore. However, with the majority of seniors still not on board, providers, technology developers and caregivers need to continue to work to identify effective, user-friendly, safe and affordable ways to reach seniors in a manner they can comfortably access.

The likelihood for seniors to maintain and manage their health effectively and age on their own terms is enhanced through today’s digital health technology. But, perhaps Healthcare IT News’ Eric Wicklund said it best, “All the technology in the world won’t make a difference if seniors are afraid to use it.”