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Report: Older Adults Hesitant to Use Patient Portals

June 4, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal
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About half of older adults aged 50 to 80 years old reported they have set up a patient portal, but there are concerns with the technology among this age group, according to the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging report.

The report specifically found that about half of older adults (51 percent) in this age group reported they have set up a patient portal, with similar rates for those 50 to 64 years old (52 percent) and 65 to 80 years old (49 percent). The survey was administered earlier this year to approximately 2,000 adults in the 50 to 80 age group.

There were some demographic differences, however, with higher proportions setting up a patient portal among women vs. men (56 percent vs. 45 percent), among adults with some college vs. high school only (59 percent vs. 40 percent), and among those with higher vs. lower household income (59 percent for income greater than $60,000 vs. 42 percent for income less than $60,000).

Common reasons cited for not setting up a patient portal included: older adults do not like communicating about their health by computer (40 percent); do not have a need for a portal (38 percent); did not know they needed to set something up (33 percent); have not gotten around to setting up a portal (29 percent); are not comfortable with technology (26 percent); and/or their provider does not offer the option of a portal (26 percent).

To this end, some adults who have not set up a patient portal had concerns about doing so: 26 percent were very concerned that there is a greater chance of error with a portal compared to talking with someone by phone or in person. About one in five (18 percent) were very concerned that they would not know which member of the office staff was answering their question, while 16 percent were very concerned that it might take too long to get a response to their question or request.

What’s more, among adults who have set up a patient portal, the most common use of the portal was to see test results (84 percent). Other common uses were requesting a prescription refill (43 percent), scheduling an appointment (37 percent), requesting reminders about upcoming appointments (34 percent), getting advice about a health problem (26 percent), updating insurance or contact information (22 percent), and requiring a referral (13 percent).

Older adults did note advantages to portals compared with contacting their doctor’s office by phone. With regard to the ability to explain their request, 21 percent rated the portal as better, 47 percent rated phone as better, and 32 percent rated them as about the same. For the amount of time it takes to get a response, 34 percent said the portal is better, 36 percent said the phone is better, and 30 percent said they are about the same. In terms of their ability to understand the information they get from the provider’s office, 30 percent said the portal is better, 27 percent said the phone is better, and 43 percent said they are about the same.

According to the report’s researchers, the data showed that many older adults prefer communicating with their doctor’s office by telephone. They stated, “It is understandable that some patients may prefer a communication method where they can respond in real-time to questions about symptoms or ask for clarification if they do not understand the practice’s instructions. Eliminating barriers to patient portals, while maintaining the option to continue telephone communication, may be the most appropriate strategy to meet the varied needs of older adults.”

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