A recent study shows that 20% of older Americans had a telehealth appointment during the first three months of the COVID-19 outbreak. The majority of these visits were conducted via telemedicine software that allows video calls. In 2019, a similar study was conducted that showed only 4% of adults over the age of 50 used telehealth appointments. But two new studies show there are still places in America lacking access to care. As the COVID-19 pandemic goes on, it has worn away much of the trepidation of seeking medical help via a telehealth application. However, some barriers still remain.
Telehealth Surges But Barriers Remain
Many of the policies that have paved the way for telehealth to be so successful amid the COVID-19 pandemic are temporary. These have allowed our most vulnerable to seek medical assistance virtually via telehealth. However, a recent study from the University of Michigan shows that 17% of Americans over the age of 50 are still report never having used telehealth to seek care. While that's 11 percentage points lower than in the 2019 poll, that lack of experience or access could be a barrier to receiving care without having to leave home as the pandemic continues to surge in dozens of states.
Both the 2019 and 2020 polls were done for the University of Michigan's Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation with support from AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M's academic medical center. Both involved a national sample of more than 2,000 adults aged 50 to 80.
"These findings have implications for the health providers who have ramped up telehealth offerings rapidly, and for the insurance companies and government agencies that have quickly changed their policies to cover virtual visits," says Laurie Buis, Ph.D., M.S.I., a health information technology researcher at U-M who helped design the poll and interpret its results. "Tracking change over time could inform future efforts, and highlights the need for much more research on concerns, barriers and optimal use of telehealth by older adults."
"This has been an extraordinary time for the telemedicine movement, and these poll results show just how powerful this 'trial by fire' has been," says Jeff Kullgren, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., associate director of the poll, health care researcher and a primary care provider who uses telehealth with his patients at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System. "But our data also highlight areas of continued concern for patients that need to be addressed."
Uncovering the Holes in The System
A separate study from the University of Washington has uncovered the seniors who are living in very rural settings are less likely than those living closer to urban centers to receive available services in health, nutrition and transportation.
Raven Weaver, assistant professor in WSU's Department of Human Development, and her coauthor Karen Roberto at Virginia Tech, found that older adults living in a completely rural environment, far from a city center, are two and a half times less likely to receive any type of service compared to those living in a mostly rural setting. The findings were published in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development.
Services, in the paper, include meal delivery programs, farmer's market voucher assistance, various types of in-home care, health management programs, transportation services, and many others. Older adults are defined as anyone over 60 years old.
While service disparities between rural and urban older adults are well known, these findings distinguish between different levels of rural.
"We know that people living in rural areas receive fewer services," Weaver said. "Rural residents have the same level of need as urban older adults. Our paper highlights the most vulnerable groups within that rural classification."
For the study, Weaver used data from more than 1,600 adults, collected from Area Agencies on Aging in Virginia. Those agencies often provide or refer people to the services mentioned above, and are designed to support older adults proactively, Weaver said.
When looking through all the data, geography was the most significant disparity.
"Where people lived influenced what services they got more than their needs or disabilities," Weaver said.
Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, the findings of this paper could be exacerbated, she said.
"The lack of direct personal contact, not receiving health checkups, those are increasing with COVID and social distancing," Weaver said. "This study shows where the biggest holes are in the systems aimed at helping older adults age in place."
It is important for families caring for older adults to realize they can contact agencies about services for their relatives, Weaver said.
"Get connected to services early," she tells families. "Some support is better than no support. Having access to food or meal assistance can re-direct energy to other challenges. Being proactive is key for helping people remain in their homes as they get older."
Telehealth Bridges the Gaps
Where these two studies come together is through telehealth. Healthcare providers can expand their practice's footprint while helping countless patients normally out of reach of their practice. Completely rural seniors can benefit from telehealth for mental health, primary care, and nutritional services. Additionally, these services are easy to implement. Telemedicine software, like the InSync telemedicine system can be rapidly deployed, as a single component of service.
InSync Telemedicine Software
InSync Healthcare Solutions offers a full software suite for charting, practice management and medical billing in addition to telehealth. Get access to unlimited minutes of telehealth patient visit time, automated telemedicine billing, a dedicated patient portal and more when you speak to an InSync Healthcare Solutions representative today.