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Help with online health

Frustrated by medical and health care websites? New research suggests seniors don’t use this health technology like they should, but it may not be their fault.

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Image: © BananaStock/Thinkstock

It’s said that you can find just about anything on the Internet. Yet when it comes to finding information about health, many seniors are at a loss.

“Few seniors are using digital health technology,” says Dr. David Levine, of Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who specializes in medical technology information.

“The Internet might offer many benefits for seniors in managing their health, but given current use rates, they are not even scratching the surface.”

A study published in the Aug. 2, 2016, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) exposed this growing disconnect between seniors and digital health technology. The study used data on adults ages 65 and older, 43% of whom were men, collected from 2011 to 2014 by the National Health and Aging Trends Study.

Digital health tools come in many forms, from mobile apps to wearable devices to online interfaces. For the JAMA study, the researchers focused on functions that are most applicable to seniors, such as use of websites to fill prescriptions, contact clinicians, address insurance matters, and research health conditions.

The researchers found that only one in five seniors used some sort of digital health tool. Less than 20% searched for health information online, and just 10% went online to fill prescriptions or contact a clinician. Only 5% handled insurance-related matters online.

“It is not clear if digital health tech is going to have a huge outcome in changing seniors’ health,” says Dr. Levine. “So far all we can surmise is that seniors are not using it like they could.”

The problem with tech

It would be easy to assume that seniors simply do not like modern technology or that they’re not interested in learning how to use it, but Dr. Levine says neither of these conclusions is true.

“Seniors use everyday technology,” he says. In fact, the JAMA study also found that as of 2014, about 50% of seniors used the Internet and 80% owned cellphones, which also included smartphones.

He feels the problem is not with the seniors, but rather with the technology. “Many medical websites are difficult to navigate, have excess information, and are just plain clunky. The result is that seniors give up and just pick up the phone to make appointments, fill a prescription, or check insurance coverage.”

Every website is different, but the problems most seniors face are often the same, such as too much information on one page, difficult navigation, and type that’s too small to read.

“The health care industry is terrible at design thinking—they often don’t involve the right people or potential users in the process. But this is starting to change,” says Dr. Levine.

What can you do?

If you’re resistant to the idea of taking an Internet class, you are probably not alone. Dr. Levine says that is rarely the right approach.

“If something requires a massive amount of effort, you won’t use it. You shouldn’t be asked to do extra work,” he says. “People don’t take iPhone classes. Most people figure them out themselves.”

Men should not be dissuaded from using digital tech by downplaying their ability, he adds. “Continue to explore websites, work at it, and don’t be discouraged or intimidated.”

Online Advantage

Digital health tools like health and medical websites have the potential to offer many benefits for seniors. For instance, you can

  • learn about potential health problems and conditions so you can have a more informed conversation with your doctor

  • communicate with your doctors or other health professionals by e-mail or online chat

  • maintain your electronic personal medical record for easy access

  • locate medical specialists

  • order prescriptions online, which can ensure supplies don’t run out

  • identify the best Medicare options and check whether certain benefits are covered.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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