Telemedicine. Health Apps. Google Hangouts. Technology is quickly outpacing the baby-boomer generation of older Americans. While Millennials, my generation, are comfortable with every new twist and turn of technology, older Americans are quickly left out.

The issue of technology and medicine presents both a problem and opportunities. Take apps like HealthTap. It puts a doctor right on your smartphone. You can ask doctors general questions for free, or have an actual consultation for a fee. Now the key is for app developers to not only think disruption, but usability.

Helen Levy, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health led the first study to gauge older Americans’ health literacy and how they use the Internet. Granted, we all know doctors don’t want their patients to have a MD from WebMD, but knowledge is power.

Prof. Levy found what most suspected. The pace of innovation in healthcare is both great for patients, but the risk remains on equality. Levy sends a stark warning that hopefully gets the attention of policymakers.

“Low health literacy may attenuate the effectiveness of web-based interventions to improve the health of vulnerable populations.”

For the team’s study, they used 1,400 participants from the 2009 and 2010 Health and Retirement Study – a survey of 20,000 Americans over the age of 65. In the survey, participants were asked how often they used the Internet, and if they used it to research health concerns.

From there, participants filled out an assessment on health literacy, using the Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Medicine questionnaire.

The results painted a stark picture. Older Americans with low health literacy were the least likely to use the Internet. Even if they did use the Internet, it was rarely to research health information.

As younger doctors enter the field of medicine, there needs to be a greater push for Internet literacy among the aging population. Using apps or telemedicine is the way of the future. The technology disruption is one of the few things that could cap costs. People with chronic illnesses could be checked on in the comfort of their home, leaving doctors to treat more immediate cases. The problem of an aging population will be exacerbated in the coming decades. By 2050, estimates put the population of people over 60 and with chronic illnesses at 2 billion worldwide.

The area is ripe for disruption, but usability is imperative.

Read the full study at the Journal of General Internal Medicine.


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