Survey: Despite the Benefits, Seniors Aren’t Using mHealth Apps

A new survey conducted by the University of Michigan and supported by the AARP finds that less than one in every three seniors is using an mHealth app, andf those numbers are even lower for seniors who should be using them.

Senior care advocates say mHealth apps could do a world of good for people over 50 who want to live healthy lives and stay in their own homes, but a new survey finds that less than a third actually use that resource.

According to an online and phone survey of some 2110 seniors ages 50-80 taken in August 2021 by the National Poll on Healthy Aging, based at the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and supported by the AARP, only 44% have ever used an mHealth app, and only 28% are using one now. That’s stunning news considering the emphasis being put on virtual care these past two years to deal with the pandemic.

“Now that most older adults have at least one mobile device, health-related apps can provide an opportunity to support their health-related behaviors, manage their conditions and improve health outcomes,” Pearl Lee, MD, MS, a geriatrician at Michigan Medicine who worked on the poll report, said in a press release.

Indeed, not only do most seniors either have a smartphone, laptop, tablet or computer, but there are more than 350,000 mHealth apps to choose from, offering help with and resources on chronic care management, cognitive and behavioral health, diet and exercise, even on-demand access to primary and specialty care services.

Yet 56 percent of the seniors surveyed said they’d never used an app. And those who are in poor health, or with lower levels of income or education (often part of a population that faces barriers to accessing the care they need), are far less likely to have used or be using apps.

For example, only 14% of seniors surveyed who live with diabetes are using an app to manage their medications, and just 28% are using an app to manage their blood sugar levels. When asked specifically if they used continuous glucose monitors, which are wearable and allow people to track and manage their blood glucose numbers in real time, just 11 percent said they use the devices, and yet 68 percent said they’d heard of the devices and more than half expressed an interest in trying them.

The AARP, which has long been an advocate of the use of digital health tools to help older Americans live longer and better lives, sees that interest as a good sign.

“AARP’s research has found a sharp increase in older adults purchasing and using technology during the pandemic, and many are interested in using technology to track health measures,” Indira Venkat, the organization’s vice president of consumer insights, said in the press releease. “With more people 50+ owning and using technology, we may start to see an increase in older adults using apps to monitor their health.”

Of those seniors who are taking advantage of this resource, 34% are using apps to track exercise and 22% are monitoring nutrition. About 20% are using apps to manage their weight, 17 percent are tracking sleep, 9 percent are monitoring their blood pressure, 8 percent are using them for meditation, and just 5 percent are using apps to access mental health or stress management resources.

Among the seniors surveyed who aren’t using mHealth apps, roughly half said they aren’t interested (a better word might be ‘motivated’), 32% said hadn’t thought about using apps, 20 percent weren’t sure if they would be helpful and 14 percent said they are uncomfortable with the technology.

These results aren’t earth-shattering – many surveys have reported low adoption of mHealth resources among the senior population over the past decade. But the results once again point a finger at the healthcare industry for not emphasizing the value of mHealth apps to seniors.

Advocates say more health systems should make digital health education and access an integral part of senior care management and coordination strategies, and care providers should take the time and effort to help seniors understand where to access and how to use the technology.

Privacy and security concerns may play a part as well. According to those surveyed, just 23 percent were very confident that their personal health information is sure on mHealth apps, while 58 percent were somewhat confident and 20 percent had no confidence in mHealth app security.

That includes putting more effort into targeting mHealth resources at seniors who could really use them. Only 15 percent of seniors with annual incomes less than $30,000 use mHealth apps (compared to 43 percent of seniors with incomes greater than $100,000), and those with college degrees are more than twice as likely to use apps as are those who hadn’t completed their high school education. In addition, seniors who reported being in good, very good, or excellent health were more likely to use apps than those saying they’re in poor or fair health (29% to 21%).

“People who describe their health as fair or poor – the people who might be most in need of the kind of tracking, support and information a good health app can give – were significantly less likely to use such apps than those who say they’re in excellent, very good or good health,” Preeti Malani, MD, an infectious disease physician with training in geriatrics at Michigan Medicine who directed the poll, said in the press release. “Health providers should consider discussing the use of health apps with their patients, because one-third said they had never thought about using one.”

Eric Wicklund is the Technology Editor for HealthLeaders.

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