Think seniors won’t use portals? Guess again.

  | June 22, 2016

When it comes to selling the benefits of patient portals, many healthcare providers assume that pitching technology to older patients is a waste of time.

That turns out to be a myth.

People in their early 60s are adopting patient portals at roughly the same rate as patients overall, according to a 2015 study of patients on athenahealth’s network. And while the portal adoption rate does decline gradually starting at age 65, even patients in their mid-70s are embracing the technology at a reasonable clip.

Portal use peaks at 35 percent among patients in their 30s and averages about 30 percent across the board. Still, nearly 20 percent of 75-year-old patients sign up for a portal account when given the opportunity.

patient portals young vs. old

And once older people register for portals, they tend to use their accounts just as much as younger patients. One fifth of seniors even qualify as “super-users,” logging on to their portal accounts nearly 40 times per year.

Why are seniors so open to patient portals? And what does their willingness mean for providers?

The lure of technology

When we think about seniors and tech, it’s easy to cling to the stereotype of the grandma who can’t program her VCR. But that was an earlier generation, said Seth Emont, PhD, MS, an independent research consultant who has studied patient portals.

A growing number of today’s seniors are baby boomers — the generation born between 1946 and 1964. The leading edge of this cohort hit 70 this year. In the 1980s, when personal computers hit the landscape, these oldest boomers were still in their 30s.

Boomers, in other words, have grown up with technology — so it should come as no surprise that they’re comfortable using it. Emont cites a recent study from the Pew Research Center that found that 71 percent of Americans 65 and older go online almost every day. The same study found that 94 percent of seniors agree that “the Internet makes it much easier” for them to find information than in the past.

Overall, Emont says, the research “points to older people using digital technologies more than ever before.” The larger differences, as the smartphone study shows, lie in the way different generations use different types of devices.

age breakdown of seniors using patient portals athenaHealth

“One thing they found was that younger adults use smartphones for a variety of reasons, like social networking and gaining access to multimedia content,” Emont says. “But seniors use them for a narrower range of purposes — mostly for email and phone calls.”

Patient portals, Emont notes, are designed for one use only: to access health information, whether it’s to communicate with providers, to check medical records, or request prescription refills.

“It makes me think organizations should focus on their marketing,” he says. “If you tell seniors how portals can help them to improve their own care, they’ll probably give them a try.”

Advantages of portals

Mark Feingold, MD, a family medicine practitioner in Manalapan, New Jersey, expects that seniors will take to patient portals as easily as they’ve adapted to any other technology.

“I already have a lot of seniors in my practice who are using our portal, and they all seem to like it and find it very helpful,” he said.

One patient in particular, who is hard of hearing, uses the portal “all the time,” Feingold says.

“He’ll send me emails asking me questions, or he’ll use it to look at his lab results. For him it’s just an easier way to communicate than calling into our office to speak with the front desk.”

Feingold says he now gets at least “a couple emails a day” from seniors asking for prescription refills. And he thinks his older patients are comfortable with the portal because they’re already accustomed to using computers.

“They’re sending emails to their grandkids, they’re getting pictures from their children,” he says. “This day and age, everyone is online. It’s not a big leap for them to use a patient portal.”

Chris Hayhurst is a writer based in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Think seniors won’t use portals? Guess again.