Most older adults are not using digital technology for health-related purposes, limiting its ability to improve the quality, cost and safety of their healthcare, according to new research published in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association.

In addition to affecting individual seniors, the lack of use of digital health technology among older adults also has implications for the healthcare system, according to the investigators, since seniors are the segment of the population that is the sickest, the fastest-growing and the most expensive in terms of healthcare dollars.

“Future innovations should focus on usability, adherence and scalability to improve the reach and effectiveness of digital health for seniors,” wrote the study authors, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

The investigators arrived at their findings after analyzing data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study. Their research included community-dwelling Medicare beneficiaries aged at least 65 years who were followed from 2011 to 2014.

At the beginning of the study period, 16% of the seniors said they had obtained health information online, 8% said they had filled prescriptions online, 7% said they had contacted clinicians online, and 5% said they had addressed insurance matters online.

The good news is that, overall, older adults’ use of digital technology for health-related purposes increased from 21% in 2011 to 25% in 2014. In 2011, 1.1% of those studied said they used digital health technology in all four ways, compared with 1.8% in 2014. From 2011 to 2014, 14% of the seniors increased the number of ways in which they used digital health technology, and 10% decreased their use of it.

Variables associated with greater use of digital technology for health-related purposes, the researchers said, included college education, higher annual income, use of medication and more comorbidities. Variables associated with less use of any digital health were older age, poor health, divorce and being black, Latino or of another race/ethnicity other than white.

Everyday technology

Cells phones and computers are by far the most popular types of everyday technology used by Medicare beneficiaries, being used by 76% and 64% of them, respectively, of those studied.

Forty-three percent of the older adults studied said they use the internet, and 40% said they use email or texting, according to the researchers. Less than 20% reported using tablets, social networking sites or internet banking or shopping services.

Seniors use everyday technology less than the general population, however, the researchers noted; 90% of the general population uses the internet and owns cell phones.