By Eric Wicklund, mHealth Intelligence | October 2, 2019
While telehealth may be poised to help seniors improve their health and wellness, a new survey from the University of Michigan finds that population isn’t taking a liking to connected health technology just yet.
Drawn from a national sample of more than 2,200 people aged 50-80 taken this past May, the survey found that less than half of those who’d had a telehealth visit compared it favorably to an in-person visit. And more than half said in-person visits were better because they felt cared for (56 percent), they communicated better with their care provider (55 percent) and they spent more time with him or her (53 percent). In addition, 58 percent said the in-person visits provided better quality of care.
The sour numbers don’t end there. Only 4 percent of those surveyed in the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging said they’d even had a telehealth visit over the past year, and only 14 percent said their providers offered virtual care visits. On the flip side, just 31 percent of those surveyed said their care provider didn’t specifically offer telehealth, while 55 percent said they didn’t know if the service was available or not.
So the challenge is there for an industry looking to boost connected health adoption in a population that most stands to benefit for more and better access to care.
“As telehealth finally appears poised to live up to its potential, with insurance reimbursement in place or set to begin soon under many plans, and providers increasingly investing in systems, these poll data show a need to focus on the patient side,” Jacob Kurlander, MD, MS, a UM and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System gastroenterology specialist and telehealth researcher who helped lead the poll, said in a press release. “As the industry moves forward, we should heed the concerns and preferences of our patients, especially those over age 50, who use the most health care.”
“Many older Americans can benefit from being able to get care through telehealth without long trips to their doctor’s office,” added Alison Bryant, PhD, senior vice president of research for AARP, which supports the survey. “Telehealth allows people to schedule health-related appointments, request prescription refills, and link to health care providers when time or distance is a barrier. It can also support family caregivers who are taking care of their loved ones.”
While the newsfeeds are filled with surveys examining why consumers and healthcare providers are or aren’t using telehealth, few drill down to how a specific population feels about virtual care, regardless of the type or brand of technology. With seniors, the challenge for care providers seems focused on getting them to overcome their fear of using something new.
And those fears are evident in the UM study. According to the survey, most of the seniors expressed concern that a telehealth visit couldn’t allow a doctor to do a physical exam, thereby reducing the quality of care. They also worried that a virtual care visit would lack privacy, and that the process would be too technical and confusing.
“Telehealth won’t replace in-person medical examinations completely, but for situations where in-person visits aren’t essential, they can save time and resources for patients and providers alike,” Preeti Malani, MD, the poll’s director and a professor of internal medicine at UM, said in the press release. “Providers shouldn’t assume older adults aren’t receptive to virtual visits, but they should understand and work to overcome some of the reasons for hesitation.”
That said, as with almost any survey, the results offer hope for the future.
Indeed, while just 47 percent said in-person visits were better than telehealth visits and 36 percent said telehealth was better, 18 percent rated the two paths of care evenly. And nearly half of those seniors whose providers don’t offer telehealth are interested in trying that care platform, with roughly half wanting to use it for primary care, 40 percent wanting to use it to access a specialist and 35 percent looking for mental health care.
For those looking to try out telehealth, roughly 66 percent said they’d use it for treatment of an unexpected illness while travelling, a very specific use case that illustrates how seniors feel about access to care – they’ll make every effort to see their own doctor when they’re home, but they’ll try telehealth when they’re too far away to get to the doctor’s office.
In addition, almost 60 percent said they’d use telehealth for a return visit, and 55 percent said they’d turn to virtual care for a one-time follow-up after a procedure or surgery – both indicating that seniors understand the value in using the technology for follow-up care, to reduce the stress of going back and forth to the doctor’s office.
Even in this category, seniors are wary of telehealth for private issues. Just 34 percent said they’d use telehealth for a new health issue – they still want to see their doctor in person for something they don’t understand or haven’t encountered before. And less than 30 percent would use telehealth for a sensitive health issue or mental health care.
The challenge going forward for healthcare providers is to make seniors feel comfortable about telehealth.
“Historically, relationships between older adults and their providers have been established and maintained through face-to-face office visits,” the study concludes. “Yet, advances in telehealth technology and older adults’ greater comfort and experience with technology in everyday life are changing this paradigm. As more providers offer telehealth visits, these poll results point to promising opportunities for telehealth to improve access and convenience for older adults. However, older adults’ concerns about telehealth must be addressed for its full impact to be realized.”