No Patient Left Behind: Communicating with Elderly Patients


Elderly PatientsAs healthcare organizations develop strategies to engage with patients, a number of challenges arise —especially when it comes to communicating with elderly patients. Almost 25 percent of elderly patients live in rural areas, more distant from healthcare facilities. They’re more likely to have chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis. Communications strategies for the elderly may require special consideration and multifaceted tactics, even for digital platforms.

When it comes to older patients and technology, the good news for healthcare leaders is that seniors are catching up with the general population and becoming more connected to the Internet. The bad news is that older, less affluent and disabled patients are experiencing a technological divide, according to a study on older adults and technology usage from the Pew Research Center. In other words, the patients who use the most healthcare and are most likely to have health problems are less digitally connected. While 60 percent of seniors (ages 65 and up) have Internet access, when you look at Americans ages 75 to 79, less than half do.

“[F]or today’s older generations, the ones with the highest demand on healthcare services, the digital age is a tough sell,” says Joe Marion, founder of Healthcare Integration Strategies, in a blog post about the digital divide and age. “Usage among people with physical impairments [shows they] have more difficulty using the internet and patient portals to view their health data.”

Healthcare leaders developing strategies and tactics to improve patient engagement will need new strategies when communicating with elderly patients.

What is Causing the Technological Divide?

The technological divide between the general population and the elderly is a challenge for healthcare organizations focused on improving patient engagement. Many strategies to connect with patients involve digital communication – text messages that remind patients of upcoming MRIs, apps that help cancer patients find support groups or email messages for patients with chronic pancreatitis about following a low-fat diet and avoiding alcohol.

As healthcare systems respond to value-based care models and Meaningful Use Stage 2 guidelines by implementing digital communication tactics, different strategies are going to be necessary for some elderly patients, especially those over the age of 75. They are less likely to be online, more likely to have physical limitations that impede their access to patient portals, and more likely to experience health challenges.

Learn more about Meaningful Use Stage 2 by downloading our paper, Some Practical Advice on Image Results and Meaningful Use Stage 2.

“It seems to me that healthcare providers will have to be creative in finding alternatives to transition from the digitally illiterate to the digital literate base of patients,” says Marion.

Bridge the Gap to Connect with Elderly Patients

Tactics to help healthcare organizations counter the technological divide may include developing bridging technologies that improve communication with elderly patients, even as more high-tech, digital communications engage the rest of the patient population. Marion suggests using automated phone calls for elderly patients. For example, it’s common for patients to have an automated phone call reminding them of upcoming appointments. This technology could be used to leave automated phone calls with test results for patients who prefer it, especially the elderly who may lack Internet access to their patient portal.

In order to ensure elderly patients with hearing difficulties are not frustrated by automated phone calls, any voice messages should use concise language with simple sentence structure. Any healthcare providers leaving a message or speaking with an elderly patient live should consider their clarity and volume when making phone calls.

When it comes to imaging results, elderly patients may need to have hard copies of their medical images sent to them with arrows noting “before” and “after” images (for example, indication of the “before” image of a vertebral compression fracture and the vertebroplasty in the “after” image), along with simplified written explanations. Other traditional forms of communication may need to be utilized when communicating with elderly patients.

“Maybe healthcare providers could take a page from Amazon and other consumer-oriented companies to enhance the delivery of healthcare,” says Marion. “Amazon seems to have the delivery mechanism down pat, in that I can order something today and have it delivered in some cases overnight. Why couldn’t the same be true for diagnostic results?”

Utilize Face-to-Face Opportunities

When healthcare providers are working with elderly patients face-to-face, this is an opportunity for the health team to lay groundwork for future engagement. For example, a healthcare organization could hire a staff member whose job description includes communicating with elderly patients as part of an exit interview process. The support staff member might ask for permission to see the elderly patients’ mobile phone (if applicable) and offer to provide the patient with a free tutorial on using tools that would help improve his or her health.

When communicating with elderly patients face-to-face, healthcare providers should also write down instructions and obtain permission from patients to share information with a designated caregiver, such as a spouse or child. Caregivers can also learn about engagement tools so they are able to help the elderly patient if he or she has further questions.

Develop New Strategies

Healthcare leaders may choose to create a focus group designated to identify new ways to communicate with elderly patients. Perhaps the focus group decides to implement a test group that gives out iPads to a small group of elderly patients with apps pertaining to certain chronic conditions. Charts, models and other visual aids typically help elderly patients better understand their health conditions and recommended treatments.

Many elderly patients fear the cost related to adopting new technology. Healthcare providers may need to get buy-in from family members or other caregivers when encouraging elderly patients to try using their patient portal to access their EHR.

As healthcare systems work to engage patients, a “one size fits all” tactic will not suffice. Many of the elderly will need healthcare information via traditional means of communication, even as the rest of the population moves toward digital technologies. Healthcare leaders can implement different tactics for patients, depending on if they have online access, do have access but struggle to use it, or lack online access completely.

Learn more about how other generations are influencing radiology by reading our blog post about the Baby Boomers and medical imaging technologies.


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