Telemedicine—effectively, the use of virtual consultations with doctors and related practitioners to lessen the burden of in-person visits for both patients and medical practitioners—is an ideal way to provide medical care to frail older adults and others who may have difficulty traveling to see a physician. Recent research has identified another benefit of telemedicine for this population: fewer trips to the emergency department.
A study published in Telemedicine and e-Health shows initial results that suggest telemedicine reduces the need and burden of emergency department care for older adults living within senior living communities. More specifically, researchers found that individuals who resided in senior living communities that are more engaged with respect to telemedicine experienced a larger decrease in visits to an emergency department compared to those who resided in communities without as much emphasis on telemedicine for acute illnesses.
More explicitly, the researchers compared the annual rate of change in emergency visits between (a) older adults who lived with a superior level of access to and emphasis on telemedicine (defined as five or more telemedicine visits per 100 residents), (b) study participants who lived in communities with less access and emphasis on telemedicine (defined as fewer than five visits per 100 residents), and (c) control subjects who lived in locations without access. In the complete dataset, there were 503 total telemedicine visits across the three comparison groups, with 72% of those belonging to the most engaged community of older adults. The subjects residing in the five or more telemedicine visit group showed a significant decrease of ED visits over the course of the study compared to the control group. However, no significant difference in decrement of ED visits was evident between the more active telemedicine group compared to the less active one. Additionally, the authors noted that older adults residing in the most engaged group with respect to telemedicine appeared to be more involved in their own medical care than residents in the less engaged group.
Thus, this research demonstrates that telemedicine has the potential to significantly decrease time and monetary expenditures for everyone involved—older adults, communities, and hospitals—likely due, in part, to the ability for older adults to confront medical ailments in the comfort of their own home early on. Because, as many of us know, the feeling of dread and desire to put off doctor’s visits can lead individuals—both younger and older—to postpone necessary consultations until one’s medical issues can no longer be ignored.
Further research is, of course, needed. Nonetheless, it appears telemedicine will change the medical landscape for older adults in substantive ways, so that older men and women can admit their physical limitations at least at a more comfortable distance from their doctors.
Gillespie SM, Shah MN, Wasserman EB, et al. Reducing Emergency Department Utilization through Engagement in Telemedicine by Senior Living Communities. Telemedicine and e-Health (2015); 22: 1–8.