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Are Seniors Being Left Behind the Wave of Health IT?

June 4, 2014
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Bringing health apps within reach of the elderly

There are certainly major strides being made when it comes to developing consumer health applications to engage patients in taking an active role in their own care. The latest, as noted by Healthcare Informatics Senior Editor Gabe Perna this week, comes from Apple, which, during its iOS8 presentation, announced its Health app and HealthKit system that allow various health apps to be integrated and to communicate. Apple has also reached collaboration agreements with Mayo Clinic and, reportedly, with Epic Systems as well.

That’s great news, and should allow users to share their health data with their providers more easily. Yet I am concerned that the current wave of healthcare apps and mobile platforms is bypassing one large and growing segment of the patient population—the elderly.

I recently listened to a webinar, presented by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on meaningful use Stage 2 reporting options and data submission processes for eligible professionals. One of the requirements under Stage 2 is that at least 5 percent of patients view, download or transmit their health information to a third party.

During the Q&A session following the presentation, one provider located in Florida called in to say that in her community, 80 percent of the patients are age 65 or older, and that 90 percent of those don’t have computers and don’t want them. “It’s going to be very difficult for us to meet that core measure,” she said. The group’s lack of success in reaching elderly patients has not been from lack of trying. It has offered incentives to get patients to sign up to its portal, and has tried to recruit the patients' family members to get them to sign up, without much success.

The CMS official who took her question acknowledged the concern, noting that the agency lowered the threshold to 5 percent in response to public comments, and that there is an exemption available for areas with low broadband access. She also noted anecdotal evidence that some providers have tried to help patients by assisting them to log on and see their information, so they can understand what they can do on a portal.

Still, this is an uphill battle, especially for providers located in areas with large populations of elderly patients who have the desire and ability to live independently or with their families. This is a population that is often not computer savvy and may not own or have access to computers.

The kicker is that the elderly, as a group, often have a special need of better care, yet the technology that can make that happen is slipping ever further from their reach. This may actually be a dilemma that cannot really be addressed by technology at all, but that requires “live” intermediaries—family members, providers or social workers—who can bring these health apps within reach of those who can really benefit.



Too often market researchers quit segmenting the market at "65+". That helps them sell their reports by making the market opportunity look large, but they're neglecting the "real" seniors aged 75+, 85+ and 95+. I noticed first hand the disturbingly low tech adoption rates among this older demographic when doing a presentation at a large assisted living facility in Austin.

The talk was on “Moore’s Law and the Future of Healthcare,” and it looked 30-40 years into the future through the lens of a technologist. All of my examples would likely occur in my lifetime (I’m 65) but probably not in theirs. Still, the audience was very engaged and interested. But there were some surprising observations. Fist was that no one there used the Internet or owned a PC, tablet or smartphone. So, there was little chance that they would personally visit my website afterwards.

This group had never experienced Skype or FaceTime or keeping up with their adult children or grandchildren online. They didn't participate in e-banking, even though their Social Security checks were direct deposited.

I shared this experience at a Broadband Communities Summit in April, where I shared a panel with two gentlemen from the Good Samaritan Society. They shared a heart-warming video with testimonials of real seniors who completed training in how to use the Internet and how it changed their lives. (

Thanks you for your feedback and excellent observation. Many elderly do have an interest in technology that can be developed, as suggested by the video. For those who are able to connect with their iPads, (with help), the tablets have opened up new worlds and lessened their isolation.

i work with seniors when I can and yes things blow past them really fast and the Blue Button from Medicare is a prime example. They don't even know it exists when you visit the real world but talk with the folks that run the program, well they get fooled as we all do with the internet as you get so absorbed in your work you think the real world is like the web with knowledge and understanding and it is not.

With seniors you have to "be in person" for a lot of it and go the extra mile for sure, been there done that. I have to even watch myself to be very conscious that I when helping them don't go over their heads and younger generation might not get this yet but it's a fact of life.

Thank you for your comment. I think technology can open horizons for some elderly, but I think many have to be sold on the idea first, and need help getting past the intimidation factor.