Promoting Telehealth Use By Elderly Calls For In-Depth Patient Education

I am as comfortable with telemedicine as anyone I know. I’ve been using urgent care services like Teladoc for nearly a decade, and in recent years, have been getting the majority of primary and specialist care via video as well.

In fact, by this point, I’ve gotten so accustomed to video visits that they feel more or less exactly like a face-to-face encounter. (I think that in part, this may be because I’m used to immersive video game worlds, but that’s a story for another time.) I’ve found it to be quite convenient to manage my care using such tools. And I believe it’s a wise move to offer telemedicine options even if they don’t have to, as they offer unique benefits.

My mother, meanwhile, stands at the opposite pole. At 79 years old, and having lived her life without using modern technologies other than her cellphone, she isn’t interested in navigating a virtual environment to get to her doctor. This is a woman who, despite being quite intelligent and capable, freezes like a deer in headlights when she’s asked to try out a new gadget or software.

The consequences of alienating her have been high. As far as I know, my mother has had very little contact with doctors during the pandemic despite some painful health conditions common to her age group. She might hurt less and enjoy life more if she had better access to care.

It’s worth noting that Mom would probably be up for conducting video visits with physicians using the Android app Duo – which she forced herself to learn in order to see her children and grandchildren face to face. However, given that Duo isn’t designed for medical-grade security I’m not surprised that her doctors aren’t using it for video consults. However, forcing Mom and her age cohort to navigate multiple interfaces managed by multiple providers doesn’t seem practical.

This has the makings of a serious problem. In my view, it would be bad, if not disastrous, if telemedicine never caught on with older, sicker patients whose mobility may be limited.

Unfortunately, this is largely the current state of affairs among elderly patients. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine last summer found that 38% of U.S. seniors wouldn’t be able to participate fully – if at all—in telehealth visits due to a lack of technical knowledge or health-related issues.

Even if these elderly patients had helpful family members, friends and other social supports, it didn’t change their perceptions very much. Even with these resources in place, 32% of these patients weren’t ready for virtual care.

Clearly, it’s time for healthcare organizations to do more to get seniors on board with telemedicine. It shouldn’t be too big a deal to get visiting nurses or specialized educators to train these seniors on a one-to-one basis and answer their questions thoughtfully. I’d go so far as to say that if we can’t get those who need video visits most to access them, why bother?

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

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