Despite the growing prevalence of mobile and computer technology usage by the elderly population, a recent study found that this demographic is not as keen to seek out virtual healthcare information as its younger counterparts.

While ever-increasing interest in utilising “Dr. Google” by millennials and baby boomers has been well-documented and cautioned by healthcare professionals, the study by Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston suggests that although “the majority of seniors use basic digital technology, very few are using digital health technology or the advanced features the internet has to offer.” said lead study author Dr. David Levine.

To better understand how seniors use the internet for health purposes, Levine and colleagues studied data from a survey of adults 65 and older not living in nursing homes or other care facilities. In total, they analysed data from about 7,600 seniors from 2011 through 2014.

Many golden oldies have digital access, but lack digital know-how

In 2011, 76% of seniors had cell phones and 64% used computers in 2011, but only around 40% of them used the internet, email or texting while fewer still used digital technology for health purposes.

About 16% of them went online to find information about a medical issue in 2011 and this crept up to 18% by 2014. Meanwhile, for contacting doctors, seniors also became slightly more likely to go online; this rose from 7% at the beginning of the study to almost 12% in 2014.

However, the study is limited by the fact that quite a number of participants had either dropped out or passed away besides which it could not factor in the rapid changes in both digital technology and its usage between 2014 and this year.

Elderly could benefit the most from digital health access

As more health information is going online every day and often at a fraction of the cost of a physical consultation or query, it has never been easier or more beneficial for people to proactively manage their own health agendas. The problem however, is that the people who would benefit the most seem to be using it the least.

Older adults typically have a greater need for health-related information but their health literacy – their capacity to obtain, process and understand health information to make appropriate health decisions – is the lowest among all age groups. Moreover, of those seniors who do seek health information online, few are careful to evaluate its credibility. This points to the need for interventions to assist older adults’ use of computers and the internet.

The European Union has taken a more intuitive approach with the Grandparents and Grandchildren program that puts old and young together so that the old might learn from the young. This allowed for intergenerational learning and mutual understanding between generations, which is a win-win approach that should be encouraged in other communities.

Caution: Not all health information is created equal

Nevertheless, caution must be applied when advocating for increased utilisation of digital health information by seniors, or any other demographic. Although numerous sources of information are widely available for free on the internet, a certain savviness must be cultivated about how to process it accurately.

Otherwise, senior citizens are likely to create unnecessary panic about minor symptoms that “Dr. Google” may suggest is “linked to cancer”. Malaysian Doctors Club President Dr Muhammad Hakim Nordin had previously commented that by typing keywords like fever or joint pain, a Google search would reveal a wide range of possible ailments, including serious ones, and their symptoms.

"Reading all that information will make the patient even more anxious, more so if the lists of ailments include cancer or other serious diseases. It's important to know that any Internet search can only yield information on common diseases, which may not be applicable to the patient concerned," he told Bernama.

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