Can telehealth reduce social isolation among older adults?
According to a recent study, published last month in Health & Social Care in the Community, telehealth may very well be critical to addressing the needs of older adults. In this study, Annie Banbury and colleagues (2018), conducted weekly teleconferences with a group of older adults who had at least one chronic condition. The researchers were interested in examining changes in social support networks resulting from the weekly groups. This is an important component of overall health, as low levels of social support are known to negatively impact both mortality and morbidity and those who suffer from chronic conditions often face added challenges in building and maintaining social networks.
Initially, Banbury and colleagues found that the telehealth platform was easy for the older adults to use, which contradicts common assumptions regarding older adults and technology. Indeed, this result was also noted by another recent study conducted in the emergency department of New York Presbyterian Hospital by Peter Greenwald, MD, and colleagues (2018). Greenwald and his team were conducting a telehealth study and thought older adults would opt out due to skepticism about the new technology - they didn't. In fact, not only did they enroll in much higher numbers than expected, but they demonstrated flexibility and interest in using telehealth and had satisfaction scores that were similar to those of their younger counterparts.
The weekly sessions provided by Banbury and her team provided health-related education, as well as providing a platform for the older adults to interact with others who were in similar situations. Their results suggest that weekly telehealth groups may allow older adults to more easily access health professionals, as well as develop new sources of social support. In turn, this can lead to better management of chronic conditions and the ability for older adults to remain in their homes. This is particularly important for those patients who are not able to leave their homes and interact in more traditional ways. Indeed, participants in this study were more engaged and resilient after participating in the telehealth groups.
Telehealth is already used across many disciplines, in an effort to meet rising healthcare needs and reduce barriers to access. The studies mentioned above show that telehealth may be an especially important modality to use with older adults, in an effort to improve their health outcomes. This research also highlights the fact that older adults are not averse to using telehealth services. Telehealth should be seen as a regular component of healthcare for older adults and hurdles to accessing such services need to be removed.
Greenwald et al. (2018) letter to the editor: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29299704
Banbury et al. (2018) abstract: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/hsc.12382
Helen Nichols, PhD, MSW
University of Maryland School of Social Work