Are seniors really game for health IT?

March 12, 2015 in Medical Technology

Over Christmas, my 79-year-old father visited me for a few days and joined us for Christmas Eve mass. Just before the service started, my father’s phone rang. He quickly pulled the phone out of his pocket and silenced it. As he did, the people behind us started giggling and said, “Hey look! It’s a flip phone!”

[See also: Senior home monitoring set to drive wearable wireless device market]

It is a little funny to see my dad with his quaint flip phone, similar to the one I had about eight years ago. My father, who refuses to attempt texting and never checks his voicemail, will probably never switch to a smart phone since the flip phone already has more features than he’ll ever use.

A little background on my dad: He’s a former college professor who spent many years using computers for research, writing, and email. He’s not a technology novice, but he’s far from a sophisticated user: he has a list of passwords taped to his monitor and more than a few times he has told me he “lost” an email he created – only to find it later in that little folder labeled “drafts.”

[See also: Seniors support e-prescribing in Medicare]

In other words, his use and acceptance of technology is better than many seniors, but worse than some. And at age 79, he is in the segment of the population with the highest rates for healthcare utilization. His is also the segment least likely to urge their doctors to offer online scheduling tools, electronic access to test results, options for secure email communications and online viewing of their electronic medical record.

How anxious are seniors to take advantage of technologies that promise to extend care to more patients, to improve access to care, and engage patients with providers? A recent Accenture survey put the spotlight on “tech-savvy seniors,” finding that two-thirds of those who place a high priority on technology want access to online healthcare services. Here’s my take, based on what I have experienced with my not-so-techy dad:

  • Telemedicine. My father is in reasonably good health but seems to average about one doctor’s office every month or so. He doesn’t particularly mind going to the doctor. In fact, when he has an appointment he tends to plan his whole week around it. Why would he want to figure out Skype when a doctor’s visit gives him an excuse to get out and about and see people?
  • Patient portals. I love portals because I’m able to check test results, schedule an appointment, or request a referral before work or late in the evening. The last thing I want to do in the middle of my busy day is to stop everything, call my doctor’s office, navigate the phone system, sit on hold, leave a message, and play phone tag with a nurse. On the other hand, my dad loves to chat on the phone and if someone isn’t immediately available, he’ll just hold on to his trusty flip phone and wait for the return call. Or, he’ll just hop into his car, drive over to the doctor’s office, and set up his next appointment in person.
  • Mobile health. My dad would never master using a mobile device to track his weight or vital signs. He can’t figure out how to change his digital watch when the time switches between standard and daylight-savings time. Recently he asked if I thought checking the yellow pages would the best way to find a new housekeeper. He calls his bank to check his balance. Mobile device? Never.

Assuming the Accenture survey is correct and two-thirds of seniors would like to embrace more technology, my guess is that half of them will quickly give up using any solution that is not intuitive and markedly more convenient than existing tried and true methods. Admittedly not all seniors have as much mobility and time on their hands as my father, but most have considerably more free time than your average tech-loving Millennium.

So all you healthcare technology folks targeting seniors for your next great app, please take note: If you thought clinicians were slow to embrace new technologies, wait until you meet my dad.

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