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Older patients join crowd consulting Dr. Internet

Physicians should talk to seniors about what they find online and recommend trusted health care sites, experts say.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Oct. 22, 2012

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No longer, it seems, can it be assumed that patients age 65 and older aren’t using technology as a means of managing their health.

A survey of 2,870 U.S. adults found that more than half of the senior population online was ready to use the Internet to manage their health care and communicate with their physicians. The survey was conducted online between May 20 and June 12 by Harris Interactive on behalf of Optum Institute, which released its findings in late September. The findings followed a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which published a report in June showing, for the first time, half of adults 65 and older are now online.

Carol Simon, vice president of Optum Institute, a health care analytics and research firm established by Optum, a UnitedHealth Group subsidiary, said she was surprised to see such a high number of seniors going online to manage their health care, but that it also makes sense. Baby boomers want to be actively engaged in their health care and view technology as part of that, she said.

It’s also possible that many seniors who weren’t interested in online communication are changing their minds, whether they are baby boomers or not, said Hardeep Singh, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Dr. Singh was the lead author of a 2009 study that appeared in the Journal of Medical Internet Research and looked at Internet use by older patients. The study found that when physicians are enthusiastic about online communication, patients also tend to get enthusiastic about it.

Pew’s research said once an older adult is online, the Internet becomes a fixture in their lives. It found that 70% of Internet users 65 and older are online every day. As they use technology for other aspects of their lives, such as banking and communicating with friends and relatives, health care is a natural next step, Simon said.

The growing number of online seniors means that physician practices need to check with their older patients about their preferred mode of communication and do so at least annually, Dr. Singh said. Practices should have each patient’s preferences on file for both urgent and nonurgent matters. Experts said physicians should be ready to talk to seniors more often about what they find online and direct them to trusted sites.

On the desktop

Another report found that 99% of seniors preferred a personal computer when looking up health information online, according to Makovsky Health, a health care public relations firm in New York, and the market research firm Kelton. However, so did 90% of the general population.

The top reason for conducting a search on a personal computer is to look up a diagnosis, said Lindsey Thompson, vice president, health, for Makovsky. Those tend to be in-depth searches that are more conducive to a large screen that allows multiple windows to be open side by side. Just because the majority of Americans have cell phones, “don’t assume they are using mobile for their searches,” she said.

One in 10 Americans 65 and older use tablets, said Maureen Malloy, senior health care analyst for Manhattan Research. Half of them use the tablets for health care management. She said although seniors are comfortable with using mobile devices to look up information, they are less likely to download an app to monitor their health.

Simon said if physicians focus on finding the most effective modes of communication for each patient — which may be a combination of face-to-face, the Internet and mobile solutions — they will succeed at engaging their patients.

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External links

“Meaningful Consumer Engagement,” Optum Institute, October (link)

“Older adults and Internet use,” Pew Internet and American Life Project, June 6 (link)

“Older patients’ enthusiasm to use electronic mail to communicate with their physicians: cross-sectional survey,” Journal of Medical Internet Research, June 16, 2009 (link)

“As the Web Goes Mobile, Healthcare Stands Still,” Makovsky Health and Kelton, September (link)

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