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Member Research and Reports

Texas A&M Research Indicates Digital Health Divide is Narrowing in Older Adults, but Not for All

Older Americans are using the internet for health-related reasons more now than ever, but some vulnerable populations are falling behind, according to new study from the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

Hong Friday Letter

[Photo: Dr. Y. Alicia Hong]

One of the first studies to examine trends of health-related Internet use among older adults was recently published by Dr. Y. Alicia Hong, associate professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, entitled “Has the Digital Health Divide Widened? Trends of Health-Related Internet Use Among Older Adults From 2003 to 2011” in the Journal of Gerontology Series B, Psychology and Social Sciences.

Using the National Cancer Institute’s Health Information National Trends Survey, Dr. Hong examined how the relationships between internet use, age, education and income has changed from 2003 to 2011. The results show that adoption of the internet for health purposes has been steadily increasing across almost all demographics.

“The divide has narrowed between genders, racial and ethnic groups, rural and urban residents and health status,” Dr. Hong said. “Even the age gap has narrowed significantly. Yet, among those 75 years of age and older, internet use is still much lower than the general population.”

Those with lower education levels and household income also are lagging behind their counterparts in health-related internet use.

In previous research on health-related internet use behaviors, Dr. Hong found that searching for health information online and communication with doctors online have both experienced substantial growth. However, older adults are still slower in terms of communicating with people of similar problems and buying medicine or health products online compared to younger generations.

The digital divide has serious ramifications in terms of health care, especially since the Affordable Care Act mandates more usage of eHealth (electronic health) resources.

“Policymakers need to provide more senior-friendly eHealth programs and more training for seniors on how to use online resources,” Dr. Hong said. “Targeted interventions are needed for the vulnerable group, otherwise they may be completely left out of the e-Health movement.”

More research is definitely needed for the new field of ‘digital inequality’ and its impact on health disparities according to Hong. “But it is clear, we need age-appropriate interventions to bridge the digital divide.”

The co-author of the paper is Dr. Jinmyoung Cho, adjunct assistant professor at the School of Public Health and research scientist at Baylor Scott and White.