GPs think older patients cannot handle health apps on phones

·4 min read
Older people maybe being stereotyped, with assumptions they won’t be computer literate, according to the study - Halfpoint Images/Moment RF
Older people maybe being stereotyped, with assumptions they won’t be computer literate, according to the study - Halfpoint Images/Moment RF

Older patients are being excluded from beneficial health technology because “ageist” doctors presume they cannot work a smartphone, research has suggested.

Experts have accused doctors of “stereotyping” older people as being incapable of using technology and warned patient safety was being put at risk by a failure to support them in using appropriate online health tools.

GPs typically recommend NHS-approved health apps to about one in 10 patients aged under 35 to help them manage their conditions between appointments, such as by reminding them to take medications or monitoring their symptoms.

However, doctors recommend the same apps to just one in 25 patients over 55 and one in 50 patients over 65, according to research by the Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Apps (ORCHA), which assesses apps for the health service.

The same research found 55 per cent of over-55s would be happy to try using a health app if it was recommended, while nine in 10 over-55s and eight in 10 over-65s who have used a health app felt satisfied or very satisfied with the experience.

The NHS Long Term Plan states that patients should have access to “digital tools” to manage their health and studies have shown NHS-approved health apps can have clinical benefits.

Older people ‘will benefit from digital products’

However, Helen Hughes, the chief executive of the charity Patient Safety Learning, suggested ageist assumptions about older people’s technological ability meant they were missing out.

“The data suggests that older people maybe being stereotyped, with assumptions they won’t be computer literate,” she said.

“Plenty of older people are tech savvy – or at least willing to learn – and will really benefit from being able to manage their health from home, using digital products. Older patients need to be offered technology solutions with support on how best to use them, if this is needed.”

She warned there was also “a significant patient safety issue” with the failure to advise patients about NHS-approved apps, as it left older patients at risk of inadvertently downloading one of the thousands of unreliable health apps available.

There are nearly 400,000 health and fitness apps available in the main Apple and Android app stores. However, four out of five fail to meet basic quality standards, such as providing accurate clinical information or keeping patient data safe, previous research found.

‘People in their 60s and 70s are very capable’

Jane Matthews, 67, who was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in 2019, said none of her doctors ever mentioned technology could help her manage her treatment.

The retired medical secretary from Surrey spotted an online post about the cancer support app Vinehealth and now uses it to remind her when to take each of her six different daily medications.

“I’m frustrated that no doctor ever recommended any app to me. I would definitely have been receptive and I’ve found it very useful for managing my medication, because it’s so easy to lose track of time,” she said.

“I was still working up until I was diagnosed, using all sorts of technology. People in their 60s and 70s are very capable these days.”

Pandemic a catalyst for tech-savvy seniors

Three quarters of people aged 65 to 74 use the internet almost every day, according to a report earlier this year by charity Age UK.

Dr Tom Micklewright, the associate medical director of online GP service Push Doctor, said the Covid-19 pandemic had been a “catalyst” for many older patients to learn to use smart devices.

“We’ve seen increasing numbers of older patients who are comfortable using technology,” he said. “Assumptions about computer literacy can risk excluding those who can use technology, and missing opportunities to support those who can’t.”

Liz Ashall-Payne, the chief executive of ORCHA, said: “Digital exclusion is a real issue amongst some groups. But when it comes to older people, it may be that we can take strides forward by simply asking them if they’re interested.”

Tara Donnelly, the chief digital officer at NHSX, said: “NHSX is working with NHS providers across the country to offer patients effective digital interventions to manage their own health and wellbeing, and our goal is to ensure that everyone has this option, if they want it.”

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