The use of digital health and web-based tools have been touted as a great opportunity to reduce cost and improve health for Americans over 65, the fastest growing and most expensive segment to treat. Yet, little is known about how this population utilizes digital health tools. Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital explored this question in a research study published in JAMA on August 2, 2016.
Using data from 2011-2014 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, researchers evaluated this populations’ digital health use as defined by four categories: use of the Internet to fill prescriptions, contact a clinician, address insurance matters, and research health conditions.
“We found that only 1 in 10 seniors are using technology for digital health purposes, said David Levine, MD, MA, a physician and researcher in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Primary Care at BWH and lead author of the study. “And there were alarming disparities among seniors who did use technology for these purposes, with even lower use rates among underrepresented minorities, those living in poverty, and those with less education.”
Specifically, researchers report that, in 2014, approximately 90 percent of seniors used the Internet and owned cell phones, while less than 20 percent of seniors searched for health information online, only 10 percent filled prescriptions online, approximately five percent handled insurance matters online and approximately 10 percent contacted a clinician online.
“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,” said 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.”
Researchers note that their findings should be used to help target current digital health technology for specific populations, and that future tools should focus on usability and scalability for a diverse population of seniors. They highlight the importance of being specific when it comes to Internet use data: generic questions regarding Internet use may mask true use patterns among this population.
This research was funded by an Institutional National Research Service Award from (T32HP10251), the Ryoichi Sasakawa Fellowship Fund, and by the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Division of General Internal Medicine.