For seniors, integration is crucial to telemedicine’s success

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Jun 16, 2020

With patients at home and providers unable to book appointments for non-emergency issues, telemedicine is providing a vital service during the pandemic. As a result, telemedicine appointments are skyrocketing, with patients and providers alike finding online appointments beneficial. This is especially important for older patients, many of whom require frequent medical care. 

Although the technology that supports telemedicine has been around for a while, some patients, particularly elderly ones, have expressed reluctance to use telemedicine due to confusion and unfamiliarity with the tech. In fact, the National Poll on Healthy Aging last year found that almost half of those surveyed, aged 50-80, could not get telemedicine technology to work. To address this problem, providers should work to make telemedicine services plug into platforms that patients are already comfortable using.

Washers, dryers, and telehealth? 

When at-home washer and dryer units first entered the market, consumers rapidly adapted to washing machine use since washing machines could be hooked up to existing water sources, such as a kitchen or bathroom sink. Dryers, on the other hand, required installing new, specially designed equipment. Dryers eventually achieved wide adoption as well, but on a much longer time frame since consumers couldn’t as easily add them to their lives.

In retrospect, this story presents an obvious truth: technology will always be easier to adopt when it can be plugged into existing infrastructure. It’s far simpler to plug a new solution into one’s life if a consumer already has the means to do so. 

The same principle exists with telemedicine. If a patient does not have the necessary technology available to them, or has an aversion to learning to use a new platform, a massive adoption barrier exists. The solution? Integrating telemedicine services into platforms patients already know and use. 

Doctor FaceTime will see you now

Almost 75% of people 65 and older use the internet, and more than 50% own a smartphone. With seniors often relying on programs like FaceTime or Skype to stay in contact with far away family members such as grandchildren and great grandchildren, it seems logical to integrate those platforms into telemedicine offerings—and that’s just what providers are currently doing.

Even compared to other video chatting platforms like Zoom, older patients are turning to FaceTime for its ease and familiarity. There is no real learning curve, since telemedicine can simply leverage the technology patients are already using—much like the washing machine hooking up to the sink. As a result, patients may feel more comfortable right off the bat, and providers and family members are spared the burden of explaining how to download and use new programs. 

Regulatory challenges ahead

The switch to Facetime or Skype for telemedicine use beyond the pandemic is not going to be a simple process. Prior to COVID-19, strict rules surrounding telemedicine use placed burdens on both providers and patients, slowing adoption to a near crawl. With adoption skyrocketing as a result of regulatory relaxation, many providers believe that the resulting boom in virtual appointments heralds a permanent change in the healthcare landscape, one where telemedicine plays a front and center role. 

However, concerns still exist over whether these new regulatory changes will revert to how they once were. During the COVID-19 crisis, administrators relaxed HIPAA rules to allow providers to talk with patients over FaceTime and Skype, which traditionally aren’t HIPAA compliant. For FaceTime or a similar program to be used beyond the pandemic, work will need to be put in to make the programs HIPAA compliant. It’s unclear how that would look, but it could be a key factor in ensuring telemedicine’s success from here on out.

Jessica is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on business model innovation in healthcare, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care delivery.