When online healthcare doesn't live up to its billing

James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

We have a saying around the office that reminds, “Technology is great … except when it isn't.” That means when it's not working, which could mean being down and out, or not hitting its intended target.

From the “What if they threw a party and nobody came?” file, new study results show that relatively few seniors are buying into the idea that digital technology can help their healthcare.

Only 5% to 8% were found to be going online to fill prescriptions, communicate with doctors or deal with health insurance. Perhaps counter to popular belief: Only 16% (or about 1 in 6) said they searched for health information online.

Hey, you get a lot of healthcare commercials and solicitations during reruns of “Gunsmoke,” “Hogan's Heroes” and “Law & Order” anyway, right? I know my older relatives would rather watch those shows than surf to find out what might be aching or paining them on a given day. (Well, OK, there is one family member who will never be satisfied hearing just one potential calamity that a booboo might represent. But I digress.)

The study is featured in Tuesday's edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association. More than 7,500 patients, averaging 75 years of age, took part. Three-fourths had cell phones, while only 43% said they used the internet (64% said they used computers).

Participation rates barely budged during the course of the study (2011-2014) even for the taken-for-granted "searching for general health information." While 14% said they had increased their use of digital health methods, another 10% said they had decreased it.

OK, it's universally acknowledged that seniors aren't going to be as internet savvy as younger generations, but the glacial adoption rate surprised researchers. Digital technology to the rescue? Not necessarily so.

People of a certain age might sit around the parlor talking about the weather and various maladies for hours, but that doesn't mean they necessarily want to grab their smart phones or head to their tablets for healthcare info. They will gravitate to IMDb for trivia on a movie they've just seen, but for potential threats to their own mortality? No.

At least not at this point in time. 

Admittedly, seniors can be more tech-averse than younger generations. But who always wants to get lightning-fast information about their latest bodily breakdown anyway?

It's safe to predict that the public's tech comfort quotient should rise in the coming years, even if very slowly. Human nature drives many people to delay the possible discovery of any potentially bad news — witness how many people won't go to a doctor, despite feeling pain or ill. But we are being imbued with technology. And this overall, is a good thing. 

Personally, I'm surprised how much I like my primary care provider's electronic health records system and patient portal. When I have a physical, I know the result of my blood work, and can start formulating questions, the day before. If I get an x-ray or undergo imaging, an email lets me know the results have arrived — no anxious waits for the phone to ring at some indeterminate time.

The efficiency and transparency are convenient and heartening. Hopefully, that's not just a generational thing that will fade with age.

I look at it this way: If 76% of seniors have cell phones now, that's 76% more than just a few years ago. Adoption will come around. Sure, disparities will continue to exist between the better educated and those less educated. Those financially more stable also will be better off technologically than those economically depressed. That follows a pattern.

But I believe patients of all backgrounds will like the idea of getting email reminders from their doctors. ("House calls" anyone?) They'll jump for joy at anything that enables them to avoid call-center representatives and their often heavily accented representatives who dispense rote wisdom from halfway around the world.

Why is this so important to the long-term care provider? Eventually, this is going to be your long-term care customer base. The ground already has been shifting due to tech savvy adult children of residents and prospective residents.

Technology, however, is able to take it only so far. Healthcare is still a hands-on, high-touch “industry.” Or at least it should be.

This last part has to be drilled home to policy makers. Simply throwing information at people — seniors in particular — is a dangerous strategy. Information only matters if it is absorbed and understood. Otherwise, it's just small print on the page.

Look at the rising tide against pre-event arbitration clauses in admission agreements. The verbiage might be there, but who actually reads through and understands all the small type before signing? And who takes umbrage that seniors under stress are subjected to them? Everybody.

There's another lesson to be learned from all of this: Online entities can never be too clear with their digital/online efforts.

Whether you're an insurer, regulator or long-term care provider, you have to always strive to make your web page and digital activities more user friendly.  That must be a never-ending task.

Follow James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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