How to Navigate Telehealth with Elderly Patients

People are living longer than ever before, and older adults often have diverse medical needs. Many are managing chronic conditions as well as dealing with new-onset issues and complications. The elderly rely heavily on healthcare services, from annual checkups to specialized care, and yet no one is talking about the disruptive nature of digital technology within elderly groups.

Many healthcare services are now offered via telehealth. As elderly patients are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, telehealth visits can help them stay safe during the pandemic. Let’s explore how telehealth can not only benefit your older patients but how you can support them by creating a safe, transparent and supportive virtual environment and experience.

Elderly and Telehealth

Older Patients Need Accessible Healthcare

Many older patients have a range of conditions that need ongoing treatment. Millions of older adults are homebound and can’t leave their house without help. Transportation and mobility difficulties aside, this population is also specifically vulnerable to COVID-19 which has made the notion of them leaving their home a potentially dangerous endeavor.

This is where telehealth can help you extend care to those who need it most.

Consider leveraging telehealth in the following situations:

  • Chronic disease:
    Caregivers and patients alike can update the provider on the patient’s condition as their disease continues to progress. Providers can stay apprised to medications, diet, mental, physical, and behavioral changes via telehealth visits.
  • Palliative Care:
    As a loved one’s condition continues to deteriorate, caregivers can provide updates to the provider and get advice via virtual visits.
  • Primary Care:
    Healthcare issues such as medication management, muscle pain, stiffness, and dietary concerns can be easily and well managed virtually. There is no reason to put a marginally healthy individual at exposure risk to satisfy in-person routine care.

Ease Telehealth Visit Concerns

Older adults are used to having a face-to-face relationship with their healthcare providers. As technology use increases, older adults are becoming more and more comfortable with digital interactions. Some elderly patients may still have concerns with virtual visits; these concerns should be addressed in order to ensure patient satisfaction and retainment.

In May 2019, the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging asked older adults, age 50 – 80, about their experiences with virtual visits. The survey showed that many are concerned about the overall quality of care, specifically a lack of a physical exam and feelings of  disconnectedness. However, concerns aside, the poll shows that 48% of the respondents are interested in telehealth, especially for primary care visits, unexpected illnesses and while traveling.

Patient concerns should be easily addressed by you or your team. Your office can prepare answers for common concerns and communicate with caregivers ahead of time. Offer reassurance that the quality of care is not determined by its delivery method. Communicate that both in-person visits and online ones are treated with the same care, attentiveness and professionalism.

With COVID-19, we may see an increase in the number of older patients interested in telehealth, not only for the safety and convenience, but because our society is being forced to accept virtual connectivity as a part of our new normal.

Prepare Older Patients for Telehealth Visits

Addressing concerns will help older adults have a pleasant virtual visit experience. Make sure your team is equipped with the right knowledge to assist the patient and caregiver before, during, and after the visit.

Explain How to Set Up Telehealth Visits

Older patients are used to calling the doctor and setting up an appointment. Some providers have patients call the office, others have them visit their patient portal. However your office prefers to schedule new appointments, explain it well to avoid frustration.

Communicate the Necessary Equipment and Process Needed

Depending on your software, patients will need to ensure they have a smartphone, tablet, or PC with a reliable internet connection. If they have to download your telehealth app, be ready to walk them through the process. For instance, let them know that the app may email or text them a clickable link a few minutes before the appointment begins, that way they will know how to start their virtual visit when it’s time to do so.

If their visit requires digital review or electronically signed documents – before the appointment can start – be sure to walk them through the process so they are comfortable doing so on their own.

Give them a Full Scope of a Visit

Once they virtually “check- in’, they may be placed in an online waiting room before the appointment begins. It’s important to manage the expectations of your patient, so make sure to communicate this “wait time” and explain that they have to wait for the provider to join the virtual meeting space before the visit can begin.

A telehealth visit will follow the same general flow as a face-to-face appointment. As a provider, you should ask about the reason for their visit, signs and symptoms they’ve experienced, perform an exam and make a plan. While the patient won’t receive a typical physical exam, the provider can have them stick their tongue out, walk around the room and ask questions while observing body language, and look for signs of pain and discomfort.

If a visit is related to skin issues, inform the patient that you will be able to take a look via video and that they may be asked to send in pictures for a closer look.

It is possible that the patient may still need to go to the office after the telehealth visit for blood work, x-rays, strep tests, or other services. As the visit is wrapping up, make sure to communicate any follow-up that may be needed. Even if no follow-up in-person visit is required, make sure the patient understands if any next steps are needed on his or her end, before signing off.

Make Telehealth Work for Your Elderly Patients

Telehealth visits offer a unique opportunity for older adults to receive quality healthcare from a distance. Many common healthcare services, including assessments and medication refills can be done via an online appointment, mitigating travel stress for older adults and their caregivers while also protecting older patients from exposure risks.

While there will be a learning curve for some older patients, with clear instructions and patience, many are learning to embrace telehealth and the new age of patient care.