Technology can make life easier for our aging parents in many ways, and their health is no exception. Telemedicine for seniors is one area where this is evolving.
With telemedicine, seniors can address health concerns and manage routine medical appointments without even having to leave the house. It’s all part of what’s more broadly known as telehealth, says Dr. Michael Genord, senior vice president and chief medical officer with HAP – and it’s a trend that some say is revolutionizing the health care industry.
“I think it’s gaining traction,” Genord says. “When we use telehealth in the senior population, there’s a lot of technology that’s helping them manage both chronic disease and social determinants (of health) in a way that can be very helpful to the elderly and their family members.”
What is it?
Virtual appointments with health care providers are a key component of telemedicine. Oftentimes, it’s helpful for seniors who have chronic diseases and need frequent check-ins with their doctors. Using a computer, patients can connect to a health care provider face-to-face through a video conference.
“They can even be using monitors at home like a blood pressure cuff, scale, glucometers and different things connected to that telemedicine visit,” Genord explains. “A physician or nurse practitioner or nurse can make much more frequent contact with these individuals.”
Other forms of telehealth include using technology to remind seniors to take their medications or keeping tabs on other patient habits, which can help doctors intervene sooner when needed. For example, new types of inhalers can record the number of puffs and how the inhaler is being used.
“It can alert (providers), through telehealth, that they’ve been using their inhaler a lot more frequently and an intervention in the home could prevent them from getting sicker and needing to be admitted to a hospital,” he says.
Technology-based interventions are also available for seniors who are managing many medications. Telemedicine for seniors can even encompass online communities where seniors can interact with each other and “help deal with social isolation, depression and melancholy.”
Seniors often feel that they’re separating from society as they age, which can have negative mental and physical health effects.
“Some of it turns into face-to-face meetings,” he adds.
Experts say telemedicine for seniors has many benefits for health and safety.
“All of these things help keep seniors in their homes, in their communities where they’re most comfortable, and keeps them out of more expensive care settings like nursing homes, senior villages and hospital-based services,” Genord says.
Telemedicine can also get adult children more involved in their aging parents’ health care by wrapping technological solutions into a patient’s care and widening their care team to include loved ones.
“Telehealth increases the population of people engaging in that senior’s health,” he says.
Seniors may be interested in telemedicine virtual appointments because it’s more convenient during inclement weather or due to lack of transportation, or even because they’re traveling and nowhere near home. When a known health care provider isn’t nearby, seniors could otherwise delay care or head to an emergency room when it isn’t necessary.
“We have a population that’s growing, they’re much more active, they travel a lot more. They’re more likely not to be around their primary care provider all the time,” Genord explains.
“They may delay treatment or they may seek treatment in an emergency room. I’m a big believer that patients need to be in the right place at the right time – the must acute center appropriate. Keeping seniors out of the ER when they don’t need to be there is very vital to their overall health.”
How to get started
While some health care providers in southeast Michigan may offer telemedicine appointments through their own practice, seniors who aren’t offered that option should ask their insurance provider about telemedicine options.
“(At HAP), it’s a benefit in many of our benefit plans, so they can engage that telemedicine provider who will then link back to their primary care provider with that visit,” Genord says. “I think we’re going to see a rapidly changing environment where people with chronic illnesses are given options to be able to manage these things in their home … making them part of the decision process of the best way to receive care.”
Adult children of aging parents should feel empowered to ask about telemedicine options for their parents, too.
“We’re going to see increasingly more adoption of this,” he says, “and I think that’s part of any family member’s responsibility in helping seniors navigate (their health), is to ask those questions about tech solutions that can help improve the health of their loved one.”
When it’s not a good fit
While telemedicine for seniors can be ideal for situations like quick check-ins for diabetic patients, those managing a rheumatologic disorder or an otherwise healthy senior with the onset of mild symptoms, it isn’t the right solution in many situations.
That’s especially true when a patient requires urgent care and also in certain non-acute situations like a case of frequent falls or memory loss.
“That obviously would not be appropriate, and I would argue that most telehealth providers would instantly identify that on the initial call and quickly recognize this is not an appropriate venue to diagnose and treat this problem,” Genord says. “They would work with that senior at that time to have a contact with the primary care doctor or urgent care or ER.”
Remember, too, that telemedicine for seniors doesn’t replace in-person relationships with doctors.
“Telehealth is not a substitution to having a meaningful relationship with a primary care provider,” he says. “That’s the first step that even opens up the gateway to telehealth.”