Our Aging Population and Health Care: Perspectives on Health IT

Damon Davis and Nora Super | October 31, 2012

ONC recently had the opportunity to take part in one of the largest conferences for consumer organizations—AARP’s annual “Life @ 50+,” which hosted more than 20,000 twenty-thousand AARP members in New Orleans, LA.  As you may know, AARP represents one of the fastest growing demographics in America— our 50+ population. AARP helps people 50+ have independence, choice, and control of their lives in ways that are beneficial to themselves and society as a whole.

The convention center was packed with older adults from every corner of the country who traversed the halls to learn about myriad topics: travel and leisure; retirement finances; fraud protection; and health care, including joint replacement, insurance, and yes, health information technology (health IT). Meeting participants approached the ONC booth with curiosity about our mission and brought a varied level of familiarity with health IT. We learned from those whose doctors and clinicians are already using electronic health records and were challenged by those members who knew nothing about using technology to better manage their health care.

Our Aging Population and Health Care IT: A Spectrum of Perspectives

  • On one end of the spectrum, those members with some familiarity with technology-enabled health care were proud advocates of health IT use for more efficient, more coordinated care. They bragged about how they could log into their doctor’s portal to view lab results, how convenient it is that their clinician uses e-prescribing, and how they enjoyed having secure access to their health information. They were proactive patients who appreciated all of the tools the health care system gives them to manage their complex health portraits.
  • Other AARP members were a little unsure whether their doctor even used an EHR.  We asked them, “When your doctor comes into the exam room, do they have a paper folder with your information, or do they use a laptop or tablet?”  That clarifying question consistently helped break the ice and allowed us to discuss the difference between an electronic health record and a personal health record, and how everyone has a right to access his or her  personal health information.  Members of this group were consistently interested in hearing more, like the fact that AARP offers a personal health record Exit Disclaimer for free. Because most of these folks are older and have chronic conditions, the idea of having access to their personal health records in case of emergency or when they travel was very appealing.  Also, they saw great appeal in being able to share personal health information with adult children who may be helping them manage their health conditions from other locations. Many of them expressed disappointment that their doctor still has a paper-based health records system and said, “I’ll ask my doctors when they’re going to get an electronic health record.”
  • Finally, there was the group who lived comfortably at the opposite end of the technology spectrum from today’s generation of digital natives. When we explained the ONC mission, they said things like, “That sounds very nice, but I don’t use computers.”  Those comments really solidified an underlying tenet of ONC’s work – technology will support true patient-centered care and assist in maximizing efficiency in health care, but it is not the solution to all of the system’s challenges.

However, these individuals can certainly benefit from consumer e-health without becoming computer literate or smart phone savvy themselves.  For example, remote communications and monitoring systems can be very valuable for helping  individuals  maintain their independence at home, while being engaged with their health care team. Many devices offer simplistic interfaces intended to help individuals  feel more comfortable with technology as a part of their care. Often caregivers who assist with the day-to-day health of an individual can work as advocates for e-health tools which make their responsibilities and the lives of the individual more efficient.

Final Thoughts About Our Aging Population and Health Care IT

It was clear that in our soon-to-be modernized health care system, techniques of patient engagement will have to be refined and adjusted to meet every patient and his or her family where they are—some individuals have jumped with both feet into the digital age as the technological vanguard, others have no desire to incorporate technology into their health care decision making. And you can’t always predict who falls into which group based on age or other obvious characteristics. In either case, or every variation in between, patient-centered care will have to be adaptable, adjustable, and nimble in order to be comprehensively effective.

For more information on health information technology, visit HealthIT.gov.