Why a New Telehealth Framework Would Improve Health Care for the Elderly
A new report suggests telehealth standards should be elevated and health practitioners making use of telehealth should undergo further training to meet the unique requirements of older adults.
According to medical experts and researchers from West Health, a nonprofit organization that aims to lower healthcare costs and improve access to affordable high-quality health care for seniors, providers have not yet tapped into telehealth’s potential for delivering high-quality medical care, especially to elderly patients, who stand to benefit the most from telemedicine due to its accessibility. To reach its full potential, they say telehealth providers should set the bar higher by adhering to and following telehealth guidelines and best practices that ensure telehealth services are delivered appropriately to seniors.
“The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light the immense value of telemedicine to remotely connect patients and doctors for a wide range of healthcare needs,” says Liane Wardlow, PhD, senior director of Clinical Research and Telehealth at West Health and co-author of the report. “But when treating older patients, we see that telemedicine falls short in many important ways. The problem is that remote healthcare delivery simply wasn’t designed with the needs of older people in mind.”
In a Journal of the American Geriatrics Society article, “Telehealth with Older Adults: Getting It Right,” experts from West Health together with collaborators from the University of North Carolina and the University of Pittsburgh comment on a study that showed seniors aged 65 and over appreciate the convenience telehealth offers and would like it to remain an option covered by Medicare in the future, but acknowledge that technological challenges and their own lack of technological literacy can be an obstacle.
According to the authors, the COVID pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of our current healthcare system, which needs to adopt additional capabilities such as telehealth to ensure everyone has access to safe, effective health care going forward.
To address some of the issues that are holding telemedicine back, the authors recommend developing a framework that helps healthcare providers offer medical care in compliance with the following three basic requirements:
1. Person-centered — Telehealth must take the needs of the patient into account. The patient must feel a connection with their healthcare provider and also feel that they are being heard.
2. Equitable and Accessible — Telehealth must offer equitable access to everyone, regardless of ethnic background, language, or education level, and also to people who are cognitively impaired or live in areas that don’t have access to fast Internet services.
3. Integrated and Coordinated — Telemedicine needs to be integrated and coordinated with a patient’s overall healthcare plan. Healthcare providers must take a patient’s social support network into account, as well as whether they can obtain any medications they are prescribed.
According to the authors, if these guidelines are not put in place, telehealth runs the risk of creating further divisions in the level of health care offered, increasing the possibility of poor value health care and further exacerbating inequalities in the level of health care offered to vulnerable populations. However, with a framework in place, telehealth could potentially provide senior citizens with safe and convenient access to high-quality, equitable, and timely health care.
The authors also point out that it’s vitally important that healthcare providers get additional training to provide them with the unique skills required to offer effective remote care to elderly patients. They note that just because a healthcare provider has been well trained to supply in-person care doesn’t mean they are capable of offering high-quality care via telehealth. Considering most healthcare practitioners have not had any formal training in making use of telehealth, and often use a diverse range of technologies or platforms, it’s not surprising that older patients surveyed in the initial study expressed concern regarding a lack of provider and patient skills training.
The results identify a need for training that addresses physical, cognitive, technical, and cultural barriers, essential components for providing successful, person-centered telehealth care that is equally accessible to all.
The study’s authors are involved with the formation of a national Center of Excellence for Telehealth and Aging, which is currently developing industry guidelines and best practices that will serve as a framework for delivering effective age-inclusive telehealth services. They recommend that healthcare institutions that make use of telehealth seek additional training for their healthcare practitioners, particularly training that addresses the unique needs of elderly patients.