How to Engage Older Adults with Patient Portals

July 8, 2018

Older adults are still struggling to use patient portals to engage with their healthcare providers, according to a survey conducted in March 2018 by the University of Michigan and AARP of 2,013 adults ages 50 to 80 years.

Older adults are still struggling to use patient portals to engage with their healthcare providers, according to a survey conducted in March 2018 by the University of Michigan and AARP of 2,013 adults ages 50 to 80 years.

More than half of all older adults surveyed report that they are not set up on any patient portals. Forty percent of people surveyed say that don’t like communicating about their health via computer, and 26% of survey respondents say that are uncomfortable with technology.

Engaging older adults is more than just handing them paperwork on how to sign up for patient portals, says Preeti Malani, MD, MSJ, MS, University of Michigan internist and professor, and director of the poll.

“An organization may hand a patient a piece of paper with instructions on how to sign up for a patient portal, but what if it had pictures and instead of words? We need to get more creative about things,” Malani says.

Among those surveyed, 52% say that are concerned about the safety of communicating about their health online. Half reported saying they didn’t see a need for this type of communication.
Malani says that making patient portals more user-friendly for older adults is an important part of increasing their use of digital tools.

“Our patient portals have to be no harder than Amazon,” Malani says. “But we have to keep the older consumer in mind. Getting people signed up is the first step. But we also need to be walking them through the features. Patient portals need to be very simple, not too many clicks, with access that makes sense.”

The survey found that many older adults still prefer to communication with healthcare providers via phone and other traditional devices. Nearly half reported that communication by phone was a better way to explain their request, and 36% say that they get a quicker response via phone.

Malani says that providers can do a better job of explaining to patients the types of communications that would be easier via patient portal, such as viewing test results, scheduling appointments, and ordering prescriptions, while still encouraging phone communications for emergencies and medical questions.

The survey found that 84% of older adults using patient portals to view test results, 43% are using portals to refill prescriptions, 37% of requesting appointments, and 34% are using portals for appointment reminders.

“Portals shouldn’t replace phone communications, but they should be an added benefit,” Malani says. “Patients need an explainer on what the portal can do for them, even though there are still times to get on the phone.”

The survey also found that education and income level and gender made a difference in patient portal usage.

For example, 56% of women surveyed reported using patient portals compared to only 45% of men. Almost 60% of adults with some college education report using patient portals, while only 40% of respondents with high school education utilize portals. Also, 59% of respondents who report making more than $60,000 use patient portals, while 42% of those making less than $60,000 report using them.

“Because lower-income adults often have complex health needs, this finding raises the question of whether patient portals are equitably reaching all populations in need of assistance with managing their healthcare,” Malani says.

Healthcare organizations can also take advantage of times when older patients are in the office to explain the benefits of patient portals to them in person.

“When people are in waiting rooms, you can capitalize on that time. Someone can show patients in the waiting room how to sign up for patient portals and what those benefits are,” Malani says.