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Healthcare Consumers and the Digital Divide

The narrowing digital divide between older adults and other healthcare consumers is key to understanding how retirees access healthcare information online.

The digital divide is defined as unequal access to, or knowledge of information and communication technologies. For example, the Pew Internet and American Life Project describes older healthcare consumers who have never used the Internet and have no access to online information as,”truly disconnected.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that older people are sometimes resistant to digital innovations. However, a 2009 CDC expert panel report found that many older adults are eager and willing to learn about new technologies. The digital divide for this group is narrowing for a number of reasons. A range of devices from laptops, e-readers, smart phones and tablets are increasing access and connectivity. At the same time, new technologies are providing means for older adults with physical limitations to move ahead, while also narrowing the knowledge of information gap.

Baby Boomers aging onto Medicare are narrowing this divide further. Boomers embrace multiple technologies at work, in their leisure time, at home and while shopping online. Whether streaming videos on Netflix or shopping on Amazon, the Boomer world is digital. This digital world increasingly reaches far into different communities and across socioeconomic strata.

Many Boomers are being asked to become informed healthcare consumers. This world, too, is increasingly digital, from the doctor’s office, to the insurance company, to health insurance exchanges such as HealthCare.gov. Navigating this world takes patience, knowledge and familiarity with technology. As the 2013 rollout of HealthCare.gov has shown, we are just beginning to understand how healthcare consumers of all ages will engage with health related information online.

Older adults and Boomers aging into retirement inhabit a consumer centric world where demand is high for meaningful information to guide purchase decisions. Within this space, consumer demand for clear healthcare information online is growing. All older healthcare consumers, whether new or existing retirees, must be informed in appropriate ways.

This is a pressing matter, as healthcare literacy in the United States is generally low. A 2009 CDC expert panel report showed that skills required to use the healthcare system exceed the skills of adults who graduated from high school. The current information available about Medicare, whether on or offline, is substantial. For many adults, Medicare information is also complex and confusing. Compounding this problem, the U.S. Census Bureau Statistics indicates that the number of Americans age 65 or older will double by the year 2030 to over 70 million. The Kaiser Family Foundation predicts 30 million people will enroll in Medicare over the next eighteen years. As a tsunami of enrollment hits Medicare, online technologies will become prevalent in this market.

Healthcare exchange technologies for Medicare are in their infancy. Given the large numbers of computer savvy Boomers aging onto Medicare, the next generation of healthcare exchange technologies must rise to the challenge of becoming true online decision tools. Decision tools offer meaningful interpretations of healthcare information, and will replace current online tools that present static reams of data online. As the digital divide narrows for healthcare consumers, exchange technologies will have to meet the growing demands of a changing consumer centric culture.

About the Author
Ellen Glassman, Ph.D. is a founder of Retiree Health Choices. She is a licensed life and health insurance broker with expertise in business development, design and marketing.

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