Few Go Online for Health-Care Needs

Study calls into question U.S.’s priorities for improving older adults’ health, researcher says

Hopes have been high that digital technology would improve seniors’ health care, but a new study suggests that few older Americans are on board.

The study, which surveyed thousands of Medicare patients, found that only 5 percent to 8 percent were going online to fill prescriptions, deal with health insurance or communicate with their doctors. And only 16 percent were searching for health information online.

Researchers acknowledged that some seniors can be tech-wary or unable to afford computers and internet service. But they were still surprised by the findings. “There’s been this general belief that digital health technology will ‘rescue’ seniors, and improve their health care quality,” said physician David Levine, lead researcher on the study and an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

It’s true, he said, that many older adults do use cellphones and go online for some things. But health care, apparently, is not one of them.

“When it comes to more-advanced technology, they’re just not using it,” Levine said.

Kavita Patel is a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution whose work focuses on health care quality.

She, too, was struck by the single-digit figures the study turned up.

“Only 8 percent were filling prescriptions online?” Patel said. “Only 7 percent contacted their clinicians [online]? This study shows we can’t make assumptions about people’s use of digital technology.”

But does that aversion to technology make a difference in seniors’ health? It’s not clear from the study, but Patel said the trends are worrisome.

The hope, she said, has been that digital technology would make health care more convenient, efficient and safe. When primary care offices have patient “portals” — secure websites — patients and doctors can keep track of vital information like prescriptions, lab results and immunizations.

Providers can, for example, send patients email reminders about prescription refills or flu shots, Patel said.

She said that kind of communication could be especially helpful for Americans 65 and older — the population group with the most illness and highest health care costs.

The findings were published in the Aug. 2 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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