- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

More than 8-in-10 Americans now say they would go online to get information rating the quality of care doctors and hospitals provide, and almost the same number say they would use the Internet to get additional medical information after receiving a diagnosis from a doctor.

Interest in health-care information online is extremely strong and no doubt growing. Yet despite this robust demand among Americans overall, evidence suggests senior citizens may need a little extra help and coaching in order to raise their comfort level with this form of health-care information technology.

The most recent American Survey (800 registered voters conducted Jan. 26-29) explored the demand for online medical information. 79 percent said they would seek additional online information after receiving a diagnosis from a doctor, while only 18 percent said they would not.

These high levels of interest and willingness to learn more online cut across gender, party affiliation and ideology. Yet age is a different story. Voters 65 years and older exhibit dramatically lower levels of interest, with only 48 percent saying they would look for further information on the Internet. Interestingly, a much larger number (75 percent) of those in the next youngest age cohort (55-64-year-olds) say they would look for further medical information online. In other words, those 65 and older are significantly different from the rest of the population in terms of their interest in pursuing further medical information online.

We also asked about interest in other types of medical data, like quality information about doctors and hospitals via the Internet. Here too, a strong 82 percent said they would want information like this. And again, these numbers vary little across gender, party affiliation and ideology. While those 65 and older are not as different as on this question, a lower 64 percent express interest in receiving doctor and hospital quality information in this on-line format.

Older Americans may just require a little extra time and encouragement. For example, a 2004 Pew study also found that a lower percentage of seniors go online compared to younger Americans. But the number of those using the Internet is growing rapidly among those 65 and older (increasing by nearly 50 percent between 2000 and 2004). And once they get online, seniors are just as enthusiastic about using the Internet as younger Americans.

Policy-makers should take these findings into consideration as they craft health information technology initiatives. Demand is strong for more tools to evaluate health care options, which suggests more rapid deployment of such information would be welcome. Moreover, whether or not these tools would save money, improve quality of care or enhance patient satisfaction are still open questions. At an intuitive level it appears they would. But no matter what final route the debate takes, policy-makers need to be aware of the special needs of those over 65, at least for the next several years.

These data, however, do suggest lower utilization with online health resources will self-correct as the 55-64 cohort ages. In the short term, however, any policy initiatives should dedicate special outreach and education initiatives to those over 65 to help address some of their reluctance to use on-line health information technology tools.

These heaviest users of the health-care system, however, will no doubt catch on fast.