Here’s what an ideal world might look like for older patients and their caregivers. Your father who has Parkinson’s disease dials up his neurologist for his quarterly appointment. Over video conferencing, the neurologist watches your father walk back and forth, watching his gait and facial expressions and listening to his speech. You participate in this virtual visit from your workplace, which allows you to share your own observations with the neurologist, ask her questions and listen to her recommendations. That weekend, your mother’s nursing home lets you know she has a minor respiratory infection – and the on-site staff is virtually consulting with a remote specialist to treat it.
That isn’t the world most of us live in, of course. It’s far more likely that you’ll need to take a day off from work to pick up your father, help him get into your car, drive him to his neurologist’s office, help him out of the car and through the hospital, and then do all of that in reverse after the appointment – all for a 15-minute visual observation. Your mother is likely to be immediately sent from her nursing home to a hospital where beeping monitors and recurring staff visits will make it hard for her to sleep, which will weaken her already fragile health.
It’s obvious telemedicine can help older patients in myriad ways. So why have adoption rates been so slow for geriatricians and other physicians?
Looking for Convenience in Elder Care
Many providers give the same answer when asked the above question. They say senior patients are too distanced from technology to be comfortable with virtual health. But when a recent University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging asked adults age 50-80 years how they felt about telemedicine, it turns out that quite a few were interested. Some respondents indicated concerns with privacy, but a significant number were intrigued by the idea of greater convenience:
- 47 percent believed that the overall convenience of a telehealth visit would be better than an in-person office visit.
- Of the patients whose providers didn’t offer telehealth visits, 48 percent expressed interest in telemedicine visits with their primary care provider; 40 percent were interested in virtual services with a specialist and 35 percent with a mental health professional.
Unfortunately, only 14 percent reported having a provider who offered telemedicine – and only 4 percent had a virtual visit in the last year.
4 Benefits of Telemedicine for Older Patients
When you consider the cost savings and convenience offered by telemedicine, there’s no mystery as to why both seniors and providers can benefit from remote care:
80 percent of older adults have at least one chronic disease; 77 percent have at least two. Treating those conditions, in addition to primary care visits, standard vision and dental care, skin cancer screenings and other appointments can create a carousel of office visits. In addition to disliking long waits in physician offices, many older patients don’t want to drive two hours to the nearest specialist or be on the road at night. Virtual care helps patients take care of many appointments either from home or from their PCP’s local office, minimizing the amount of travel and waiting required.
2. Caregiver relief.
The aforementioned appointments aren’t just tough on seniors. They’re also a challenge to their adult children, who are usually busy with careers and children of their own. Telemedicine can not only alleviate some caregiver burdens, but also let them virtually participate during hospital rounds or regular appointments. Because older patients may not hear well or remember a provider’s recommendations, being able to speak to providers directly lets caregivers clarify treatment plans and share recent updates.
3. Keeping patients in their homes.
Older patients recovering from surgery or dealing with chronic conditions such as heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or diabetes can maintain their independence and well-being through virtual care. Instead of admitting them to nursing homes, providers are using remote patient monitoring (RPM) to monitor older patients at home. Data-driven devices let providers watch their vital signs, glucose levels and other medical data and receive alerts when a frail patient has fallen. Faster interventions, such as medication changes or home health nurse visits, can keep these patients from deteriorating to the point where they need permanent inpatient care. This is enormously helpful for the 1 in 5 adults over the age of 65 without a spouse or children to help care for them.
4. Keeping them out of hospitals.
Many assisted living facilities lack on-site physicians, which means medically fragile patients are transported to emergency rooms for issues that aren’t that urgent. These hospital visits can accelerate decline for elderly patients, thanks to potential infections, disrupted sleep, medication interactions and patient disorientation. Telemedicine can also connect nursing home residents to specialized medical expertise without them leaving the facility – something that minimizes both patient stress and facility spending. One study found nursing homes can save $479 million annually by reducing transportation costs related to in-person physician office visits.
Achieving Quality Care in the Golden Years
A recent Forbes article noted that “Most people will want to age independently, staying close to the things they know and love.” Today’s seniors do not want to disappear into a nursing home. They are intent on redefining old age and living with energy and self-sufficiency. New approaches to elder care can support these goals – especially when one of those approaches is virtual.