62 Percent of Older Americans Have Used Telehealth During Pandemic, but Concerns Remain

A new poll shows that 62 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 50 have used some form of telehealth over the course of the pandemic, although many still have concerns over privacy, being able to use the required technology and receiving the appropriate level of care.

In the survey of 1,000 representative adults from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, a majority of adults said they began using telehealth in some form to avoid potential exposure to COVID, with about 25 percent calling it a "major reason."

Telehealth became an increasingly important method of receiving many forms of medical care as doctors and hospitals had to limit or close nonessential visits as the pandemic spread in 2020, and some patients have continued to use the remote services as COVID has been seen with varying levels of concern in 2021.

The remote services can vary from video and telephone calls to simple text messages or email exchanges with medical professionals.

The poll also found that most who used telehealth services were comfortable with it, and about 60 percent said they were "at least somewhat likely" to continue to seek similar care after the pandemic subsides.

However, about two-thirds of respondents said they were at least somewhat concerned about not receiving care that is as effective as when meeting their medical professional in person.

Many also said their concerns include privacy concerns and not developing a personal relationship with their doctor, a concern especially prevalent for those over the age of 65. That older age group also reported being more concerned with the ability to have or properly use the technology required to virtually meet their doctors.

Telehealth, COVID, AP Poll
A new poll indicates that most nonwhite adults say they would use telehealth to avoid exposure to COVID-19, but many also have concerns about the quality of care. AP-NORC Poll

Comfort levels with remote care can vary depending on factors like age, income level or race, according to the survey.

Patients most frequently used telehealth for consultations on medications, nonurgent health concerns and wellness checks or to continue with ongoing care to manage a chronic condition like diabetes.

The ease of finding an appointment or meeting a specific provider and the chance to get an immediate response were the most common reasons respondents opted for telehealth. Roughly a third said each was a major factor, and another third called them minor factors.

Rosa Bivens began using remote care during the pandemic in part because it helped her avoid the virus. The 59-year-old also likes how telehealth allows her to stay connected to her doctor in Maryland while she's on a temporary work assignment in Germany.

A military family life counselor, Bivens says her doctor back home understands how the stress she faces in her job affects her health.

"That personal relationship is important to me," she said.

Judy Ostrom, on the other hand, didn't use remote care during the pandemic and has no plans to start.

"You don't know who's walking in and out of the room where the doctor is," the 60-year-old resident of La Pine, Oregon, said. "I love my family, but sometimes you want your conversation with your doctor to be confidential."

Debra Nanez, 69, of Tucson, Arizona, said she sticks to audio-only telephone calls with her doctors when she does telehealth. The retired nurse worries about the security of any health information she'd have to enter into a website to do other forms of telehealth.

She also doesn't have a reliable way to do a video call.

"Sometimes my phone acts funny; it will work and then suddenly the phone will turn off," she said. "That's why I'll just do it telephonically. I have no problems with it."

People making less than $50,000 are roughly three times as likely as those with higher incomes to feel that having a doctor provide the necessary devices for a telehealth visit would be "very" or "extremely" helpful. The poll also found that people with lower incomes are more likely to say it would be helpful if the doctor provided assistance in using the technology.

Nonwhite respondents are especially likely to see telehealth as a way to avoid COVID-19 exposure. But they are also more concerned than white respondents about the security of their health information, both for telehealth and in-person care.

The poll finds that older, nonwhite Americans are also especially concerned about meeting with a provider who does not understand their cultural preferences.

Education about telehealth and a growing familiarity with the practice can help alleviate some of the lingering concerns patients have, according to Mei Kwong, executive director for the Center for Connected Health Policy.

Kwong's California-based nonprofit researches and promotes the use of virtual technology in health care. She noted that once the pandemic started, the clinics and hospitals that were most successful in converting patients to remote care took the time to explain it and even do test runs before people made actual visits.

But Kwong, who was not connected to the AP-NORC poll, noted that this sort of education wasn't widespread.

"Prior to the pandemic, telehealth was very niche," she said. "Then when the pandemic hit, [patients] were just basically slapped in the face with it.

"Nobody really explained what it was," Kwong added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Telehealth, COVID, AP Poll
Comfort levels with remote care can vary depending on factors like age, income level or race, according to a survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Above, medical director of Doctor on Demand Dr. Vibin Roy prepares to conduct an online visit with a patient from his work station at home on April 23 in Keller, Texas. LM Otero/Associated Press File