Differences in Access to and Preferences for Using Patient Portals and Other eHealth Technologies Based on Race, Ethnicity, and Age: A Database and Survey Study of Seniors in a Large Health Plan

J Med Internet Res. 2016 Mar 4;18(3):e50. doi: 10.2196/jmir.5105.


Background: Patients are being encouraged to go online to obtain health information and interact with their health care systems. However, a 2014 survey found that less than 60% of American adults aged 65 and older use the Internet, with much lower usage among black and Latino seniors compared with non-Hispanic white seniors, and among older versus younger seniors.

Objective: Our aims were to (1) identify race/ethnic and age cohort disparities among seniors in use of the health plan's patient portal, (2) determine whether race/ethnic and age cohort disparities exist in access to digital devices and preferences for using email- and Web-based modalities to interact with the health care system, (3) assess whether observed disparities in preferences and patient portal use are due simply to barriers to access and inability to use the Internet, and (4) learn whether older adults not currently using the health plan's patient portal or website have a potential interest in doing so in the future and what kind of support might be best suited to help them.

Methods: We conducted two studies of seniors aged 65-79 years. First, we used administrative data about patient portal account status and utilization in 2013 for a large cohort of English-speaking non-Hispanic white (n=183,565), black (n=16,898), Latino (n=12,409), Filipino (n=11,896), and Chinese (n=6314) members of the Kaiser Permanente Northern California health plan. Second, we used data from a mailed survey conducted in 2013-2014 with a stratified random sample of this population (final sample: 849 non-Hispanic white, 567 black, 653 Latino, 219 Filipino, and 314 Chinese). These data were used to examine race/ethnic and age disparities in patient portal use and readiness and preferences for using digital communication for health-related purposes.

Results: Adults aged 70-74 and 75-79 were significantly less likely than 65-69 year olds to be registered to use the patient portal, and among those registered, to have used the portal to send messages, view lab test results, or order prescription refills. Across all age groups, non-Hispanic whites and Chinese seniors were significantly more likely than black, Latino, and Filipino seniors to be registered and to have performed these actions. The survey found that black, Latino, and Filipino seniors and those 75 years old and older were significantly less likely to own digital devices (e.g., computers, smartphones), use the Internet and email, and be able and willing to use digital technology to perform health care-related tasks, including obtaining health information, than non-Hispanic whites, Chinese, and younger seniors (aged 65-69), respectively. The preference for using non-digital modalities persisted even among Internet users.

Conclusions: Health plans, government agencies, and other organizations that serve diverse groups of seniors should include social determinants such as race/ethnicity and age when monitoring trends in eHealth to ensure that eHealth disparities do not induce greater health status and health care disparities between more privileged and less privileged groups.

Keywords: Internet use; eHealth disparities; health information technology disparities; patient portals; race-ethnic disparities; seniors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • California
  • Databases, Factual
  • Electronic Health Records / statistics & numerical data*
  • Ethnicity / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Health Planning
  • Health Records, Personal
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Male
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Telemedicine / statistics & numerical data*
  • White People / statistics & numerical data