Prevalence and Factors Influencing Use of Internet and Electronic Health Resources by Middle-Aged and Older Adults in a US Health Plan Population: Cross-Sectional Survey Study

JMIR Aging. 2019 Mar 26;2(1):e11451. doi: 10.2196/11451.

Abstract

Background: Health care organizations are increasingly using electronic health (eHealth) platforms to provide and exchange health information and advice (HIA). There is limited information about how factors beyond internet access affect use of eHealth resources by middle-aged and older adults.

Objective: We aimed to estimate prevalence of use of the internet, health plan patient portal, and Web-based HIA among middle-aged and older adults; investigate whether similar sociodemographic-related disparities in eHealth resource use are found among middle-aged and older adults; and examine how sociodemographic and internet access factors drive disparities in eHealth resource use among adults who use the internet.

Methods: We analyzed cross-sectional survey data for 10,920 Northern California health plan members aged 45 to 85 years who responded to a mailed and Web-based health survey (2014-2015). We used bivariate and multivariable analyses with weighted data to estimate prevalence of and identify factors associated with internet use and self-reported past year use of the health plan's patient portal and Web-based HIA resources by middle-aged adults (aged 45 to 65 years; n=5520), younger seniors (aged 65 to 75 years; n=3014), and older seniors (aged 76 to 85 years; n=2389).

Results: Although approximately 96% of middle-aged adults, 92% of younger seniors, and 76% of older seniors use the internet to obtain information, about 4%, 9%, and 16%, respectively, require someone's help to do so. The percentages who used the patient portal and Web-based HIA resources were similar for middle-aged adults and younger seniors but lower among older seniors (59.6%, 61.4%, and 45.0% and 47.9%, 48.4%, and 37.5%, respectively). Disparities in use of the internet, patient portal, and Web-based HIA across levels of education and between low and higher income were observed in all age groups, with wider disparities between low and high levels of education and income among seniors. Multivariable analyses showed that for all 3 age groups, educational attainment, ability to use the internet without help, and having 1 or more chronic condition were significant predictors of patient portal and Web-based HIA use after controlling for gender, race/ethnicity, and internet use.

Conclusions: Internet use, and especially use without help, significantly declines with age, even within a middle-aged group. Educational attainment is significantly associated with internet use, ability to use the internet without help, and use of patient portal and Web-based HIA resources by middle-aged and older adults. Even among middle-aged and older adult internet users, higher educational attainment and ability to use the internet without help are positively associated with patient portal and Web-based HIA use. Organizations serving middle-aged and older adults should take into account target population characteristics when developing and evaluating uptake of eHealth resources and should consider offering instruction and support services to boost patient engagement.

Keywords: digital divide; health education; information-seeking behavior; patient portal; patient preference; patient surveys.