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New research suggests it's time to teach baby boomers about patient portals

Only about half of people aged 50 to 80 have set up an account on a secure online access site, or patient portal.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

These days, Americans can manage many facets of their lives through the internet. But a new poll suggests many older adults still aren't using online systems to communicate with doctors and other healthcare providers, despite the widespread availability of such systems.

As patients age and have more complex health needs, providers may want to help their patients understand that they can authorize their loved ones to have such access. 

That creates something of a quandary for providers, who in recent years have been responding to a wave of consumerism that has placed more power in the hands of patients. Many wield that power online, and healthcare leaders have taken notice, trying to attract consumers with internet strategies that at times mirror those of the retail industry, with a premium placed on access and convenience.

Only about half of people aged 50 to 80 have set up an account on a secure online access site, or "patient portal," offered by their healthcare provider, according to the new findings from the National Poll on Healthy Aging.

Older people with more education and higher household incomes had higher rates of patient portal use, even though those with lower household incomes and less education generally have more health-related needs.

Age matters, too. People over 65 were more likely than people in their 50s and early 60s to say they don't like using the computer to communicate about their health, or to say they're not comfortable with technology in general.

In fact, among older adults who hadn't yet set up access to a patient portal, 52 percent cited concerns about communicating online about health information. Fifty percent said they didn't see the need for this kind of access to their health information. About 40 percent of adults, with many of these being in their 50s and early 60s, said they just hadn't gotten around to setting up their access yet.

For the past several years, the federal government has required hospitals, health systems and other healthcare providers to offer patient portal options to their patients if they want to earn extra funding from Medicare. The requirements include timely access to records and test results that are part of a provider's electronic health record system.

Among those who had set up an online portal access to their health provider, most (84 percent) had viewed their results from blood tests or other tests. But when asked about other portal functions, the numbers dropped off sizably. For instance, only 43 percent had refilled a prescription online, only 37 percent had used a portal to schedule an appointment, and only 26 percent had gotten advice about a health problem from their provider online.

The poll's results highlight the concerns that might be keeping older adults from setting up and logging in to the patient portals available to them. For instance, 27 percent of those who hadn't set up a portal account were very concerned that online communication would bring a higher chance of error than talking with someone on the phone or in person would. Nineteen percent were very concerned they wouldn't know who from the provider's staff was answering their question, and 17 percent were very concerned that getting a response to an online communication would take too long.

Yet among those who had signed up for a portal, the respondents were almost evenly split among those who said phone was faster for getting an answer, those who said the portal was faster, and those who said they were the same.

Another sign that older adults may be missing out on potential portal functions showed up when respondents were asked who else they have authorized to see their health information. Of those who have a portal account, 43 percent said they had authorized someone else to log in to see their information -- mostly spouses and partners, but also adult children and other family members, some of whom may be their caregivers.

Among those who hadn't authorized another user, 22 percent said they didn't know how to set this up, and 35 percent said they prefer to keep their information private. The other 43 percent said they don't have anyone else who helps with their medical care.

A recent IHPI study found that "health supporters" such as adult children are willing and able to help people with chronic illness, but often feel left out by both patients and providers.

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com

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