A global health crisis has thrust us into a scenario in which lives quite literally depend on the ability to virtually connect. Telehealth has rapidly emerged as a vital tool, enabling continuity of care, allowing vulnerable individuals to access their physician from home, and freeing up resources for providers to treat the most critical patients. The acceptance of telehealth and expansion of covered services for the senior population demonstrate that this technology will endure long after COVID-19 subsides.
Prior to the pandemic, just 11% of Americans utilized telehealth compared to 46% so far this year, and virtual healthcare interactions are expected to top 1 billion by year’s end. While the technology has been a life-saver for many, usage depends heavily on the availability of audio-video capabilities, internet access, and technological prowess – potentially leaving vulnerable patients behind.
Seniors Face Physical, Technical and Socioeconomic Barriers to Telehealth
Despite telehealth’s surge, there is growing concern that the rapid shift to digitally delivered care is leaving seniors behind. Telehealth is not inherently accessible for all and with many practices transitioning appointments online, it threatens to cut older adults off from receiving crucial medical care. This is a significant concern, considering older adults account for one-quarter of physician office visits in the United States and often manage multiple conditions and medications, and have a higher rate of disability. This puts an already vulnerable population at a higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19.
Research published recently in JAMA Internal Medicine found that more than a third of adults over age 65 face potential difficulties accessing their doctor through telehealth. Obstacles include familiarity using mobile devices, troubleshooting technical issues that arise, managing hearing or vision impairments, and dealing with cognitive issues like dementia. Many of these difficulties stem from the natural aging process; it is imperative for provider organizations employing telehealth and telehealth vendors to improve offerings that consider vision, hearing, and speaking loss for this population.
While barriers associated with aging are a key factor within the senior population, perhaps the greatest challenges in accessing telehealth are socioeconomic. The rapid shift to digital delivery of care may have left marginalized populations without access to the technological tools needed to access care digitally, such as high-speed internet, a smartphone or a computer.
According to the JAMA study, low-income individuals living in remote or rural locations faced the greatest challenges in accessing telehealth. A second JAMA study, also released this summer indicated that “the proportion of Medicare beneficiaries with digital access was lower among those who were 85 or older, were widowed, had a high school education or less, were Black or Hispanic, received Medicaid, or had a disability.”
These socioeconomic factors are systemic issues that existed prior to the pandemic, and the crisis-driven acceleration of telehealth has magnified these pre-existing challenges and widened racial and class-based disparities. Recent initiatives at the federal level, such as the FCC’s rural telehealth expansion task force, are a step in the right direction, though more sustained action is needed to address additional socioeconomic challenges that are deeply rooted within the healthcare system.
Fortunately, Telehealth Hurdles Can Be Overcome
Recognizing that telehealth isn’t a “one-size fits all” solution is the first step towards addressing the barriers that disproportionately impact seniors and work is needed on multiple levels. Telemedicine consults are impossible without access to the internet, so the first step is to provide and expand access to broadband and internet-connected devices. With more than 15% of the country’s population living in rural areas, expanding broadband access for these individuals is especially crucial. In addition, older adults in community-based living environments need greater access to public wi-fi networks.
Access to mobile and other internet-connected devices is also essential. Products designed with large fonts and icons, closed captioning, and easy set-up procedures may be easier for older adults to use. For example, GrandPad is a tablet designed specifically for seniors and has an intuitive interface that includes basic video calling, enabling seniors to virtually connect with their caregivers.
To address affordability, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) allowed for mid-year benefit changes in 2020 to allow for payment or provision of mobile devices for telehealth. Many Medicare Advantage organizations are enhancing plans’ provisions of telehealth coverage and devices for 2021.
In addition to increasing access to broadband and internet-connected devices, providing seniors with proper educational resources is another crucial step. Even if older adults are open to using technology for telehealth visits, many will need additional training. Healthcare organizations may want to connect older patients with community-based technology training programs. Some programs take a multi-generational approach, pairing younger instructors with older students.
For example, Papa is an on-demand service that pairs older adults with younger ‘Papa Pals’ who provide companionship and assistance with tasks such as setting up a new smartphone or tablet.
From a socioeconomic perspective, careful consideration is needed to address the concerns that telehealth may reinforce systemic biases and widen health disparities. Providers may be less conscious of systemic bias toward patients based on race, ethnicity, or educational status.
In turn, providers must address implicit bias head-on, such as offering workplace training and incorporating evidence-based tools to adequately measure and address health disparities. This includes pushing for policies that enable widespread broadband access funding to better connect communities in need.
Health plans can support expanded access to care through benefit design, reducing costs for plan members. To match members and patients with the right resources and assistance, health plans and providers should launch outreach campaigns that are segmented by demographic group. Outreach initiatives could include assessments to determine each person’s ability and comfort level with telehealth.
The Path Forward
Without question, telehealth is playing a central role in delivering care during the current pandemic, and many of its long-touted benefits have been accentuated by the current demand. Telehealth, along with other digital monitoring technologies, have the potential to address several barriers to care for seniors and other vulnerable populations for whom access to in-person care may not be viable, such as those based in remote locations or with mobility issues.
In the post-pandemic era, telehealth can provide greater access and convenience, but if not implemented carefully, the permanent expansion of telehealth may worsen health disparities. Careful consideration and collaboration will be essential in embracing the value of telehealth while mitigating its inherent risks.
If implemented correctly, telehealth can provide continued access to care for our vulnerable aging population and can significantly improve care as well. Enhancing the ability to connect with healthcare providers anytime, anywhere can give seniors the freedom to gracefully age in place.
About Anne Davis
Anne Davis is the Director of Quality Programs & Medicare Strategy at HMS, a healthcare technology, analytics, and engagement solutions company, where she’s focused on the company’s Population Health Management product portfolio.