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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

The Great Digital Divide in Health Care: Older Americans may be Left Behind, says Michigan Led Study

When it comes to the benefits of electronic health records, older Americans may be left behind, says a new University of Michigan SPH-led study.

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[Photo: Dr. Helen Levy (left) and Dr. Kenneth Langa]

Less than a third of Americans age 65 and over use the Web for health information and barely 10 percent of those with low health literacy – or ability to navigate the health care system – go online for health-related matters, according to the nationally-representative study that appears in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

“In recent years we have invested many resources in Web-based interventions to help improve people’s health, such as electronic health records designed to help patients become more active participants in their care. But many older Americans, especially those with low health literacy, may not be prepared for these new tools,” says lead author Dr. Helen Levy, research associate professor at the U-M Institute for Social Research and in the department of Health Management and Policy at the School of Public Health.

“Our findings suggest that there is a digital divide when it comes to health care. Older adults with low health literacy especially represent a vulnerable population that’s at high risk of being left behind by the advance of technology.”

Over the last five years, uptake of electronic health records in the U.S. has increased dramatically as a result of government initiatives and investment by health care providers. Many providers, including the U-M Health System, now offer patients access to parts of their own medical records via online health portals that include everything from reminders of when they are due for wellness visits and screening tests, to immunization records and lab results, as well as key information on obtaining and using their prescription medications correctly and safely.

“Health information technology promises significant benefits, but it also comes with the risk that these benefits will not be shared equally,” says senior author Dr. Kenneth Langa, a professor of internal medicine at the U-M Medical School and professor of Health Management and Policy at the School of Public Health.

“The Internet is becoming central to health care delivery, but older Americans with low health literacy face barriers that may sideline them in this era of technology. Programs need to consider interventions that target health literacy among older adults to help narrow the gap and reduce the risk of deepening disparities in health access and outcomes.”

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