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Telemedicine checklist may smooth visits with older patients


Kenneth Lam, MD, of the division of geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and colleagues arrived at these estimates after analyzing data from more than 4,500 participants in the National Health and Aging Trends Study that was conducted in 2018. The study is nationally representative of Medicare beneficiaries 65 years or older.

The aim of the study “was to call attention to what clinicians were already experiencing on the front lines,” Dr. Lam said. In an interview, he imagined two scenarios based on his colleagues’ accounts of telemedicine visits.

In one case, a 72-year-old woman logs into Zoom Health on her iPad without any trouble. “She explains she just pushed on the URL and everything loaded up and you have a great visit,” Dr. Lam said. “This is likely to be the case for over 50% of the older people you see; I share this picture to combat ageism, which is, truthfully, just inaccurate stereotyping of older people and gets in the way of actionable, data-driven policies.

“However, for around one in three older adults (and closer to three out of every four of those over the age of 85), you will book an appointment and they will say they don’t have an email address or a computer or know how to go online,” Dr. Lam said. “Or suppose they decide to try it out. ... Come appointment time, you log on and they pick up, but now their sound doesn’t work. They keep saying they can see you but they can’t hear you. ... They accidentally hang up. You place another call, and they ask if you can switch to a phone conversation instead.”

By phone, the physician can address concerns about the patient’s blood pressure, which the patient has been measuring daily. “But when it comes to looking at the swelling in their legs, you’re out of luck, and you’ve been on this call for 45 minutes,” Dr. Lam said.

Have a backup plan

Making sure patients are prepared and having a backup plan can help, said Kaitlin Willham, MD, of UCSF and the San Francisco VA Medical Center.

She says older patients fall into a wide range of categories in terms of skills and access to equipment. Knowing which category a patient falls into and having relevant support available to troubleshoot are important.

During the pandemic, Dr. Willham has conducted many more telemedicine visits with patients who are at their place of residence, whether a private home or a residential care facility. “Even outside of the current crisis, there are benefits to home video visits,” Dr. Willham said. “A home video visit can provide a more holistic view of the patient than an office visit, allowing the clinician to see how the person lives, what they might be challenged by. It allows the clinician to identify areas of intervention and, if there is a care partner, involving that person in the plan. If the visit starts without major technical or communication barriers, they are generally very well received.”

For patients with problems hearing for whom headphones or amplification devices are not available, “using a landline for the audio portion of the visit can help, as can having someone with the patient reiterate what was said,” Dr. Willham suggested. “Many video platforms also enable the clinician to type messages or share a screen with a live document. These options can work well when there is very severe or complete lack of hearing.”

Sometimes an in-person visit is the right way to go, even when technical hurdles can be overcome.

“Although many older adults are willing and able to learn to use telemedicine, an equitable health system should recognize that for some, such as those with dementia and social isolation, in-person visits are already difficult and telemedicine may be impossible,” Dr. Lam and coauthors wrote. “For these patients, clinics and geriatric models of care such as home visits are essential.”

Dr. Nieman, Dr. Oh, and one of Dr. Lam’s coauthors have received funding from the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Oh also has received funding from the Roberts Family Fund. Dr. Nieman serves as a board member of the nonprofit organization Access HEARS and is on the board of trustees of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

A version of this article originally appeared on


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