Telemedicine is often thought of as a way to increase access to healthcare. It can give people in rural areas access to highly trained specialists; it can enable people with limited mobility to talk with their doctor more easily; it can help people with chronic illness better manage their conditions.
But for seniors, telemedicine has always raised barriers even while it improved access.
It’s a stereotype, but it’s true: older people are less adaptable, and so they often struggle with new technology. Telehealth systems that require downloading or installing software might be beyond the technology capabilities of many seniors. Video or telephone visits might create communication challenges for older people who have reduced eyesight or limited hearing. And because new technology is less important to older people, many don’t have access to the internet at home. A 2020 study in the U.S. estimated that 25% of people over 65 and 72% of people over 85 were “unready” for telemedicine at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But has the pandemic changed that?
In March 2020, Australia, along with many other countries, launched a massive push to increase telehealth, especially among seniors. As a result, many healthcare providers experienced a significant increase in utilisation of telemedicine. But was this a short-term effect? Or was it the beginning of a new era in healthcare?
It wouldn’t be the first time that a major historical event resulted in lasting cultural and societal change. From the shift to include women in the global workforce as a result of World War II to the ongoing political and economic impact of Australia’s 2020 bushfires, disruptive events create an impact that lasts far longer than the event itself. The pandemic accelerated many existing trends such as online shopping and working from home. But how many of those changes will persist long-term?
At The CareSide, we believe it’s essential for aged care providers to understand the impact of societal changes on the people we serve. We’ve been providing home care for seniors since long before the pandemic, and we were on the frontlines of caring for our most vulnerable citizens throughout the crisis. We worked with our clients as their lives transitioned online during the pandemic. But as life has stabilised in its new normal, the question remains: Will seniors embrace telemedicine technology?
We conducted this survey to find out.
The first question in our survey was simply about comfort with telemedicine. We anticipated that older Australians would feel less comfortable with technology – partly because the learning curve can be more difficult for older people, and partly because of the access challenges due to common health changes with ageing. For example, arthritis in the hands and finger joints can make it more difficult to type and use a computer. Decreased hearing makes it more difficult to understand a phone conversation. Our results on this question confirmed our expectations.
Due to privacy constraints, telemedicine often requires patients to learn and even download unfamiliar software, so it’s not surprising that people over 65 were the age group who was least comfortable with it. However, we were surprised that a significant percentage – more than half – of seniors said they are comfortable using telemedicine technology.
This comfort could be the result of necessity: many people were forced to use telemedicine during the pandemic, and it’s possible that people became comfortable with it because they had no choice but to use it.
However, there’s a difference between feeling comfortable with something and preferring it. You might feel comfortable driving a manual car, but that doesn’t mean you’ll buy it instead of an automatic. We didn’t just want to know if people are managing to use telehealth; we want to know if they’re likely to continue using it.
Is telehealth here to stay? Or are doctors and patients just relying on it to get through the pandemic? To learn that, we asked about people’s preferences, and the results were surprising.
Even though all ages in our survey felt comfortable using telemedicine technology, a significant majority said they prefer in-person healthcare. Young and old, our respondents said they’d rather meet face-to-face with their doctor.
There are likely a variety of reasons for this preference. One possible factor is the reality that many healthcare needs simply can’t be met remotely. When you need labs, a biopsy, or a physical exam, your provider will need to see you in person. Perhaps this preference for in-person is simply an acknowledgement that many health needs can’t be met by a telehealth visit.
Whatever the reason, our survey showed that even though people of all ages are relatively comfortable using telehealth, they prefer in-person healthcare.
Does that mean telemedicine is just a fad, one that will disappear as the coronavirus recedes? We don’t think so. People may want the human connection of an in-person visit, but telemedicine is convenient – especially for people with mobility challenges and for people who live in rural areas. Now that the pandemic has provided impetus for many providers to offer telemedicine options, and for patients to learn to use them, it’s likely that telehealth will continue to be a key aspect of healthcare. It can never replace in-person care, but it can supplement it in important ways, and that’s likely to continue.
This survey was conducted by The CareSide using SurveyMonkey’s marketing research services in January 2021. Responses were collected from 1,122 Australian adults. The respondents were categorized by age: 74% were 18-39 years old, 20% were 40-64 years old, and 6% were 65 or older.