A recent piece in JAMA Internal Medicine by Roberts and Mehrotra underscores that even in our connected age, many older adults have difficulty accessing technology. While telemedicine has been widely deployed in the setting of COVID-19, these individuals are therefore unable to achieve many of its benefits. Their main findings, in a survey of 638,830 Medicare beneficiaries, were the following:

– Over 40% lacked access to a desktop or laptop computer with high-speed internet;
– Similarly, over 40% lacked a smartphone with wireless data plan;
– Over 1 in 4 people (26%) lacked both (no computer or smartphone);
– Digital access was lower among people age 85 or older, and among those who were widowed, had lower education, were Black or Hispanic, received Medicaid, or had a disability.

macbook pro iphone cup desk

Their findings are in line with my own clinical experience over recent months – while telemedicine has provided a critical way to maintain care for some patients, others are simply unable to engage. Related to the work by Roberts and Mehrotra, we published a recent piece in JAMA Health Forum outlining how “digital health” may actually worsen health disparities – if adopted by younger populations who are already reasonably healthy. Both articles underscore that patients most at risk for poor health outcomes are also the least likely to have access to the new era of digital medicine. While improving digital access among these populations is challenging, it is also essential.

 

By: John Dodson, MD

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