Medical Care #FromHome: Telemedicine and Seniors

Medical Care From Home: Telemedicine and Seniors

For weeks and even months now, millions of us have relied on the internet in ways we haven’t before. We’ve worked remotely on it, our children have schooled from home on it, and we’ve pushed the limits of our household bandwidth as families have streamed, gamed, and conferenced all at the same time. Something else is new—more and more of us have paid visits to our doctors and healthcare professionals  on the internet. Needless to say, this is an entirely new experience for many. And with that, I got to thinking about seniors. What’s been their experience with telemedicine? What concerns have they had? And how can we help?

For starters, an online doctor’s visit is known as telemedicine—a way of getting a medical issue diagnosed and treated remotely. With telemedicine, care comes by way of your smartphone or computer via a video conference or a healthcare provider’s portal.

Telemedicine is not new at all. It’s been in use for some time now, such as in rural communities that have little access to local healthcare professionals, in cases of ongoing treatment like heart health monitoring and diabetes care, and situations where a visit to the doctor’s office simply isn’t practical. What is new is this: the use of telemedicine has made a significant leap in recent months.

Telemedicine for seniors (and everyone else) is on the rise

A recent global consumer survey by Dynata  took a closer look at this trend. The research spanned age groups and nations across North America and Europe, which found that 39% of its respondents consulted a physician or healthcare professional online in the past few months. Of them, two-thirds said they used telemedicine as part of their care. Yet more telling, 84% of those who recently had a telemedicine appointment said this was the first time they used telemedicine.

The study also looked at their attitudes and experiences with telemedicine based on age and reported that members of the Baby Boomer generation found the experience to be satisfactory—just over 55%. Interestingly, this was quite consistent across other age groups as well, with all of them hovering just above or below that same level of satisfaction.

Have seniors changed their feelings about telemedicine?

One other study gives us some insight into how the opinions seniors hold about telemedicine may have changed in the past year. We can contrast the findings above with a University of Michigan study that polled American adults aged 50 to 80 in the middle of 2019. On the topic of telemedicine, the research found that:

  • 64% would consider using telemedicine if they had an unexpected illness while traveling
  • 58% saw it as an option for a return visit or follow-up
  • 34% would use it to address a new health concern

The study also asked how older Americans felt about telemedicine visits. At that time in 2019, only 14% said that their provider offered telemedicine visits, while 55% didn’t know if they had the option available to them at all. Just a small number, 4%, said they’d had a telemedicine visit within the year. Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see what 2020’s results would have to say should the university run this poll again.

In terms of their experience with telemedicine, those who had at least one telemedicine visit, 58% felt that in-person office visits provided an overall better level of care and about 55% felt that in-person visits were better for communicating with their health care professional and feeling better cared-for overall.

Older adults and seniors express concerns about telemedicine

Citing the same University of Michigan study from last year, some of the concerns older adults shared are what you might expect, even regardless of age. The lack of a physical exam (71%), worries that the care might not be as good as a face-to-face visit (68%), and losing the feeling of a personal connection with their health care professional (49%) all ranked high.

Of note, three other concerns around technology also topped the responses:

  • Privacy (49%)
  • Issues using the technology needed to connect (47%)
  • Difficulty seeing or hearing their care provider (39%)

Once again, you can make a strong case that plenty of people might share these same concerns—not just seniors.

Your first telemedicine visit

On the subject of the actual telemedicine visit, let’s turn to some expert advice on the topic. The AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) offers a step-by-step guide on how to prepare for your first telemedicine visit. Their first piece of advice is “make sure you are tech-ready” for your appointment. And that’s one place I can help. Let’s take a look at some of those top concerns about technology.

Some of my advice here mirrors what I shared a few weeks ago about getting ready for and online job interview, and you can keep the following in mind:

Pick your device of choice and get it set up for telemedicine

You’ll need a device for your visit, so choose the one you know and that you’re comfortable with. That’s probably your computer or laptop. And just like with any video conferencing you do, spend some time getting familiar with how to set the microphone levels, speaker volume, and the camera. For audio, you can use a set of smartphone earbuds, which can help prevent audio feedback loops and simply make it easier to hear your caregiver.

As for cameras, many laptops have them built in as a standard feature. If that’s not the case for you, or if you have a desktop computer without a camera, there are several inexpensive options. If you’re shopping around, do a little research. There are plenty of reputable sites that provide mini-reviews, pricing overviews, and give you a sense for where you can make your purchase right now.  As with any connected device, be sure to change any default passwords to a strong, unique password.

And if you can, do a dry run before your appointment. Reach out to a friend or relative and set up a quick video call with your computer or laptop. That way, you can get a feel for the experience and fine tune your settings as you like.

In other instances, the care provider will have an app that you’ll need to download or an online portal that you’ll need to access. If this is the case, don’t worry. You can still practice using your camera and your audio ahead of time with a trusted video conferencing application like Apple’s FaceTime or Microsoft’s Skype.

Make sure your technology is secure

If you don’t already have a comprehensive security solution in place, get one. This will protect you against malware, viruses, and phishing attacks. You’ll also benefit from other features that help you manage your passwords, protect your identity, safeguard your privacy, and more.

As for privacy in general, medical information is among the most precious information you have. For example, here in the U.S., we have HIPPA privacy standards to protect our medical records and conversations. Yet there’s also the issue of eavesdropping , which is a risk in practically any online communication. Here, you’ll want to do some research. A reputable health care provider will have a comprehensive set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) available as part of their telemedicine service, which should include a section on your personal privacy and the technology they use. (Here’s a good example of a telemedicine FAQ from University of Washington Medicine.) Consult that FAQ, and if you have further questions, feel free to call the healthcare provider and speak with them.

If you find yourself searching online for a telemedicine provider, look out for bad links and phishing scams. It’s a sad state of affairs, yet hackers are capitalizing on today’s healthcare climate just as they’ve taken advantage of innocent people in times of need before. Use a web advisor with your browser that will alert you of malicious links and never click any link or open any email that you’re unsure of. Again, your security software should help you steer clear of trouble.

The best telemedicine choice is the one that is right for you

We’ve welcomed the internet into so many aspects of our lives, right on down to purchasing connected refrigerators and washing machines. Yet inviting the internet into other aspects of our lives, like our health and that of our loved ones, may not come so quickly. To put it bluntly, getting comfortable with the idea of online doctor’s visits may take some time. However, with research and conversation with your healthcare provider, you may find that a telemedicine visit will work just as well, or well enough, as an in-person visit in some cases. As you make those very personal decisions for yourself, I hope this article and the resources cited within it helps you make a choice that’s absolutely right for you.

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