Navigating virtual healthcare for an aging population

As the world of healthcare shifts more and more towards a virtual operating world, we must consider what implications this has for our increasingly aging population. The elderly are most likely to have chronic health conditions, making them one of the most vulnerable populations across the world – and this growing cohort will soon be the biggest, outnumbering those under 18 and younger by the next decade.

This demographic trend is colliding with the growing use of technology to drive virtual care. Accelerated by the impacts of COVID-19, healthcare providers around the world rapidly pivoted to online and telehealth consultations due to the safety and convenience it offered. Now, post pandemic, the healthcare industry is keen to keep going in this direction, recognizing how it added capacity and support to over-burdened traditional healthcare systems.

Research from Perkins&Will, including a literature review and quantitative survey of field experts, suggests that it is currently uncomfortable and challenging for a high percentage of the senior population globally to adapt to this change. These reactions are not unfounded, as seniors seem to be neglected in design processes, both for physical environments and digital products. As a result, they encounter greater obstacles when trying to use virtual healthcare.

While technology and virtual care holds immense potential for an aging population, the uptake of new technologies and innovations must conquer some significant barriers to fulfill this potential – namely that seniors will need to acquire technological skills, overcome physical limitations to do so effectively, and psychologically will have to accept virtual care as an adequate substitute to in-person care.

Several studies consulted for this research identified reasons, physical and emotional, for why the elderly are less willing to switch to virtual care. One recurring theme was concerns about overall patient experience and the perceived limitations of virtual physical examinations. Some questioned the level of engagement or connection between the patient and provider, and felt less trust in the clinical effectiveness and quality of care versus an in-person experience.

Even if this hesitation can be overcome, a second theme was the lack of knowledge and confidence in properly using virtual platforms. In this scenario, it was observed that having a strong support network—with someone present to offer instructions or guidance—enhanced the likelihood of someone being willing to try. This point may be critical: An increasing number of elderly individuals face shrinking social support circles and are more isolated and lonely. For seniors on a fixed income, a complicating factor is the affordability of tablets or computers and a good connection with the necessary bandwidth, to properly and easily access the necessary platforms.

Finally, even if a person has access to the social support and resources needed, there remain physical limitations that pose challenges to elderly technology users. Issues like dry skin, arthritis conditions, and difficulties with vision and hearing loss can make it physically harder to manipulate small screens and read or try to enlarge small text.

Improving the tech interface with all users in mind would be one way to address this barrier. For technology to be fully inclusive, it needs to be designed around the necessities and limitations of all user groups. Especially in the case of the elderly population, the design needs to be simple, safe, and easy to navigate.

If we can make progress on these fronts, it can help to unlock some of the benefits of virtual care, especially since many seniors want to remain in their home as they age. “Aging in place” is rapidly gaining traction as the preferred option of many, including stretched healthcare providers. However, most houses or apartments have not been designed to accommodate the types of changes that might be needed to provide care at home.

We need to rethink our built environment and make spaces adaptable to “care-at-home” or “hospital-at-home” – essentially asking, what does a residential environment with clinical requirements look like, and what does it need to function? To design a space for aging in place, it should not only include patients’ needs but also care providers’ physical and psychosocial requirements like accessibility features, type of fixtures, patient handling, and monitoring equipment requirements. A room adapted specifically for virtual visits should be of sufficient size, safe, well-lit with minimum external noise, have comfortable seats, and be able to accommodate posture and movement visualization. Building more flexible and multi-generational living options could also help maintain social support systems and create an ecosystem for aging well in a community.

In paving the way for a technology-driven future in design, it's crucial that spaces cater to the needs of the elderly. It's urgent that we implement changes promptly to guarantee the current and future well-being of our aging populations.