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Health Care 2.0

Ideas, innovations and trends in health care technology.

Connecting Seniors to Telehealth

As many health care visits shift to calls, seniors need greater access to tech tools — and some help using them.

By Steve Hendershot

Hands holding a mobile phone.

Westend61/Getty Images

It took a crisis, but telehealth — long lauded as a game-changer — finally moved mainstream. As people went on lockdown and health care facilities restricted patient flow to limit the spread of COVID-19, insurers began reimbursing for telehealth services at rates equivalent to in-person visits — spurring many providers to quickly ramp up their options. In April 2020, early on in the pandemic, 43.5% of Medicare primary care visits took place via telehealth, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, up from only 0.1% two months earlier in February.

That telehealth surge has revealed patient usage patterns — and problems. One major revelation: There’s a long way to go before seniors have convenient access to telehealth, even though they account for 25% of medical office visits in the U.S.

In August 2020, researchers at the University of California–San Francisco estimated that 38% of older Americans are not ready for telehealth. Only 12% of seniors say they want remote access to mental health care, for example, compared to about half of patients aged 18-49, according to a 2020 survey by Sage Growth Partners and Black Book Market Research.

Diagnosing Limits

Lack of access has been a major barrier. In March 2020, about a third of seniors didn’t have a computer or a smartphone that would enable them to participate in a video call with a health care provider, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Even with the right equipment, seniors often aren’t as familiar with using it. At clinical settings, such as a hospital, “you have a support team on the ground that’s familiar with the technology. If you’re asking somebody to self-navigate, that can be more complex,” says David Cohn, founder of Regroup Telehealth and chief growth officer at InSight + Regroup.

Telehealth app technology “has gotten very good, and the user experience in many cases is down to almost a single click,” Cohn says. “But it’s harder to help somebody when the Wi-Fi is switched off on their tablet, and they don’t know where to find that.”

“TELEMEDICINE DEFINITELY HAS ITS HURDLES, BUT WE’VE ALSO SEEN HOW IT CAN BE A GOOD EQUALIZER IN TERMS OF ACCESS TO HEALTH CARE.”

Hands using a laptop computer keyboard.

Victor Torres/Getty Images

New Solutions

The pandemic has underscored telehealth’s potential value: In April 2020, more than three-quarters of telehealth patients reported satisfaction with their experience, according to the Sage Growth Partners and Black Book Market Research survey. More than 40% of respondents thought their virtual visits were equal to in-person appointments.

Yet solutions to get seniors online have largely been patchwork. For example, one family of doctors in Orlando, Florida, raided their closets for discarded smartphones and tablets to give to patients. That experience spurred the family’s two children to launch a nonprofit in March 2020, TeleHealth Access for Seniors — an organization dedicated to collecting telehealth-ready devices and creating how-to guides aimed at helping seniors surmount technical obstacles. By January 2021, the group had attracted 425 volunteers across the country and had distributed 3,200 devices, along with step-by-step instructions for connecting to Wi-Fi and creating an email account.

“Telemedicine definitely has its hurdles, but we’ve also seen how it can be a good equalizer in terms of access to health care,” says Hannah Verma, one of group’s co-founders and a senior at Yale University. “The learning curve is pretty steep, and that’s probably the most frustrating part. But if elderly patients can figure it out — which we’ve seen has been possible — it’ll be really helpful.”