New research published by the Journal of American Geriatrics Society points to telemedicine as a way to improve health outcomes in older adults. The study reviewed current articles and data on telemedicine with a focus on older adults—those who are 65 years or older.
The study’s authors also found that disparities in healthcare access and delivery—specifically those caused by transportation and health workforce difficulties—negatively impact individuals living rural areas. Those challenges are even more profound for vulnerable populations in rural areas such as older adults, children, and persons with disabilities.
“Despite improvements in life expectancy and advances in medical therapies, individuals residing in rural areas in the United States face increasing disparities in healthcare delivery. Remote and distant communities demonstrate higher rates of the five leading causes of death in the United States,” according to the study.
Researchers identified several reasons for inequality including lack of resources in an ambulatory setting, limited access to specialists, fewer transportation options that prevent those in rural areas from visiting a hospital or doctor regularly, and socioeconomic factors.
Telemedicine and related information and communication technologies provide opportunities to improve rural healthcare delivery in older adults. This is the fastest growing user group, particularly in areas where there is improved rural broadband and cellular connectivity.
“The potential of telehealth and telemedicine is just one of the important reasons Connected Nation is working to expand access, adoption, and use of broadband [high-speed internet] to all people,” said Tom Ferree, Chairman & CEO, Connected Nation (CN). “Our mission is to find innovative solutions to bring access to everyone—this research is another example of how having broadband and understanding how we can leverage it will not only improve quality of life for individuals and families but it can actually help extend lives through better healthcare options for people who can’t easily get to a doctor.”
The co-authors of the study do point to the expansion of broadband as one reason that telemedicine has become a viable option in the United States. They say that continued expansion has led to “improved capability for telemedicine in surmounting the major barriers faced by rural residents and narrowing the rural-urban divide in healthcare utilization.” In addition, researchers found emerging legislation and healthcare financing systems are finding new ways to support the expansion of telehealth.
Connected Nation Michigan, a local subsidiary of CN, is right now conducting targeted research in relation to telemedicine. CN Michigan is partnering with AARP and the Michigan Health Endowment Fund to research the impact of telehealth and how it can help individuals and families get the care they need.
“Telemedicine plays a major role in making high quality healthcare available to all Michiganders, regardless of where they live,” said Chris McGovern, Director, Research Development, CN. “Health systems that serve rural portions of the state are now offering telehealth options ranging from psychiatric visits to quick-response stroke assessments. These services, once only available in large cities, mean that rural patients can now seek out care close to home, saving them time and money while improving their quality of life.”
The survey and research work being done in Michigan will be completed later this year.
In the meantime, the study from the American Geriatrics Society does point to some barriers for older adults when it comes to the use of telemedicine. Those include older adults having less experience with emerging technologies as well as memory, sensory, and other age-related barriers to engaging in telemedicine.
“These speak to the “use” part of our mission. We must bring people into a digital world by supporting them through continuing education,” said Chris Pedersen, VP of Planning and Development, CN. “This can be addressed by asking important questions such as ‘how can we help older adults better leverage technology’ or ‘are there ways we can provide support in the home for them?’ There are some organizations already working on this. For instance, the Boy Scouts are encouraging troops across the country to teach older adults how to use technology as their service project.”
There is still more research that needs to be done on telehealth and its applications. But according to this most recent study, telemedicine is both feasible and an acceptable way to deliver healthcare to older adults and clinicians should consider using telemedicine “in routine practice to overcome barriers of distance and access to care.”