Studies confirm the rapid increase in the use of telehealth among older adults. A recent poll conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation (UM) found that in 2019, only 4% of people older than 50 had ever had a telehealth appointment. But early in the pandemic, that number rose to 30%, and according to a March 2022 poll from Independa, 75% of older adults have now attended a telehealth appointment. There is even a government portal for patients, telehealth.hhs.gov/patients.
The Independa survey revealed that avoiding exposure to COVID wasn’t even the top factor in acceptance of telehealth among older adults and family caregivers. Instead, comfort and convenience topped the list, followed by saving travel time.
Doctors, too, found that for some types of visits, telehealth was efficient and offered a number of advantages. “This has been an extraordinary time for the telemedicine movement, and these poll results show just how powerful this ‘trial by fire’ has been,” says UM’s Dr. Jeff Kullgren, who uses telehealth with his patients at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System. “But our data also highlight areas of continued concern for patients that need to be addressed.”
Meeting telehealth challenges
Telehealth is great for people who have trouble getting to the doctor’s office. It offers a lot of promise for rural seniors. But barriers remain. Experts from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) say that more than a third of older adults face impediments to using telehealth.
Some don’t know how to operate the equipment—or, they don’t have access to it. Others have hearing or vision impediments, or difficulty speaking. People with dementia are at a particular disadvantage.
And it’s not just a matter of seniors adapting to this new technology. The technology must adapt to older users, as well. “To build an accessible telemedicine system, we need actionable plans and contingencies to overcome the high prevalence of inexperience with technology and disability in the older population,” said UCSF study author Dr. Kenneth Lam. “This includes devices with better designed user interfaces to get connected, digital accommodations for hearing and visual impairments, and services to train older adults in the use of devices.”
To help older users take advantage of remote doctor visits, the National Institute on Aging shares 10 tips for a better telehealth appointment:
A second University of Michigan study stresses that family caregiver support can help older adults have a better telehealth experience. “In many cases, getting into the visit requires multiple clicks, requires knowing how to use a computer, turning on the microphone, turning on the speakers, being able to hear,” reported study author Minakshi Raj. “Some caregivers described their older relative’s hearing difficulties, and so it just became more frustrating because they couldn’t hear what the doctor was saying through the computer. In terms of telehealth policy and practice, we need to start thinking about how we can better engage caregivers so that they can still stay involved, better support their relatives and also be better supported by the health care system.”
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Talk to your doctor and your insurance company to find out if telehealth is right for you.