Seniors might be the sickest, most expensive and fastest growing segment of the U.S. healthcare population, but they are not embracing digital health technology.

That’s the finding of David Levine, MD, a researcher in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Primary Care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and his colleagues, who found that there is a low rate of Internet use for health purposes by Americans over age 65.

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

However, according to Levine, little is known about how this population actually uses digital health technology. To address this lack of information, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital leveraged data from The National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS)—an annual in-home, computer-assisted, longitudinal nationally representative survey of community-dwelling Medicare beneficiaries 65 years and older—to get a data-driven perspective about how seniors are using digital health.

The data they analyzed, from 2011 to 2014, fell into four categories of utilization: use of the Internet to fill prescriptions, contact a clinician, address insurance matters and research health conditions.

Despite the fact that about 80 percent of seniors have cell phones and 60 percent regularly use computers, they used digital health at low rates, with only modest increases between 2011 and 2014. Specifically, the study revealed 16 percent of older adults searched for health information online; only 8 percent filled prescriptions online; approximately 7 percent contacted a clinician online; and a mere 5 percent handled insurance matters online.

“We’re not able to say why from these numbers,” adds Levine, lead author of the study. “We do postulate that there’s a real dearth of usable technology platforms right now for seniors who are not adept at using mobile and computer technology.”

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

In addition, among seniors who did use digital tools for health purposes, researchers discovered that the usage rates among underrepresented minorities, those living in poverty, and those with less education were even lower. Levine says there are “really stark contrasts” when it comes to use disparities between socio-economic and racial groups. In particular, he points out that blacks had half the odds of using digital health technology, compared with whites.

“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,” concludes Levine. “Currently, there is a lot of attention and resources that are focused on digital health, but those resources may be more valuable if directed to other proven methods of improving the health of seniors.”

The study results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, are available here.


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