Few physicians encourage e-health for older patients

The Kaiser Family Foundation report also revealed that Internet use among those 50 and older varies greatly by age, income and educational status.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted Jan. 31, 2005

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Washington -- Many older patients are honing their computer skills and seeking answers to health questions online, but they are not being encouraged by their physicians to do so, according to a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Just 3% of 50- to 64-year-olds and 1% of those older than 65 reported ever having a physician recommend a particular health or medical Web site, according to the report, "E-Health and the Elderly: How Seniors Use the Internet for Health." The report, released at a Jan. 12 briefing, was based on a telephone survey of 1,450 adults.

The power of the Internet is undisputed, and it has become clear from past surveys that seeking health information is a popular online activity. Whether physicians take advantage of this activity may become an increasingly important issue.

Despite a growing amount of reliable health information on the Internet, only 9% of those ages 50 to 64 and 5% of those 65 and older said they had been asked by their physicians if they had access to the Internet or whether they go online.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies and vitamin manufacturers are taking to the Internet to promote their products. Forty-one percent of all 50- to 64-year-olds and 15% of those 65 and older reported receiving e-mails promoting Viagra, supplements and vitamins and other medical products.

The survey also uncovered several digital divides. Specifically, those who were poorer or had less education were much less likely to use the Internet.

"We know that the Internet can be a great health tool for seniors, but the majority are low-income, less well-educated and not online," said Drew Altman, PhD, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Dr. Altman urged policy-makers to tackle this disparity because Internet access is becoming increasingly important for making health care decisions such as which hospital or Medicare prescription drug card to select.

Among the specifics, only 15% of seniors whose annual household income was less than $20,000 a year were likely to go online while 65% of those with annual incomes higher than $50,000 a year reported using the Internet.

In addition, while 95% of college graduates were likely to use the Internet, 49% of those with a high-school degree or less were likely to be users.

Survey information also makes it clear that the coming generation of senior citizens -- the baby boomers now ages 50 to 64 -- are likely to transform Internet use among this group.

Although fewer than a third of people 65 and older have ever used the Internet, more than two-thirds of those now 50 to 64 said they are frequent surfers and are likely to turn first to online sources for health information.

"We really do need to get ready for a sea change, a substantial increase in seniors' reliance on the Internet for health information," said Victoria Rideout, vice president and director of the Kaiser Family Foundation's Program for the Study of Entertainment, Media and Health.

Among the additional findings:

  • Those ages 50 to 64 are much more likely to trust the health information they find on the Internet -- 19% said they trust the Internet "a lot" on important health issues while only 8% of those 65 and older said they trusted the Internet a lot.
  • Looking for information on prescription drugs is one of the top reasons senior citizens use the Internet for health information -- 37% said they had sought information on prescription drugs, but only 5% said they have bought prescription drugs online. Others said they looked for information on nutrition or exercise (30%), cancer (23%) or heart disease (21%).
  • Among those who sought online health information, 50% of those ages 50 to 64 and 34% of those 65 and older said they had spoken to a physician about this information; 37% of those 50 to 64 and 23% of those older than 65 said they had changed their behavior as a result; and 35% of those 50 to 64 and 23% of those older than 65 said they had decided how to treat an illness or condition because of this information.
  • Most senior citizens don't check the source of health information they find online.
  • Few senior citizens are using the Internet to look for information on Medicare. Only 2% said they had gone to the Web site when the survey was conducted in March and April 2004, and 4% said they had done so in response to a survey conducted in June and July.

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You've got mail

According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, seniors who use e-mail say that they receive more promotional messages from pharmaceutical companies than they get messages from their physicians' offices. Consider the following percentages:

  • 43% got Viagra promotions.
  • 38% got vitamin/supplement promotions.
  • 37% got prescription drug promotions.
  • 19% got ads selling other medical products.
  • 54% got at least one of the above promotions.
  • 7% got e-mails from a physician.

Source: "e-Health and the Elderly: How Seniors Use the Internet for Health Information," Kaiser Family Foundation, January

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External links

Kaiser Family Foundation survey, "E-Health and the Elderly: How Seniors Use the Internet for Health" (link)

AMA policy E-5.026, on the use of electronic mail (link)

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