Over half of seniors polled unlikely to use telemedicine

Most also uncomfortable with AI interpreting their medical results, survey finds

When security officer Joseph Mathew was asked by Ng Teng Fong General Hospital (NTFGH) last year to consult his specialist about his varicose veins over a video call, he declined, preferring an in-person appointment.

"Suddenly switching to telemedicine and videoconference is very new to me, and I'm not ready for it," said Mr Mathew.

"There are certain things the doctor has to examine in person... And I'm not very tech-savvy," the 59-year-old added.

He is not the only one who feels that way.

A survey by the Singapore Eye Research Institute (Seri) during the circuit breaker last year found that about 55 per cent of 520 people aged 60 and above were unlikely to use digital medical services if the Covid-19 pandemic continues.

Though half the respondents agreed that telemedicine would be helpful in reducing non- essential contact, 77 per cent were uncomfortable with artificial intelligence (AI) interpreting their medical results.

But the study found that seniors of higher income and education levels were more likely to use digital health services.

The findings highlight the need to improve digital health acceptance and adoption among the elderly as healthcare moves towards a new normal of safe distancing, concluded the study, which was published in May in Scientific Reports.

"There is difficulty in engaging the older age group, but these are the ones suffering most from eye disease," said Professor Cheng Ching-Yu, head of the Ocular Epidemiology Research Group and Data Science Unit at Seri, and a co-principal investigator of the study.

Seeking healthcare online has become a more well-known option as a result of the pandemic. In May alone, more than 8,000 teleconsultations were done by institutions under the National University Health System, said Mr Peter Forbes, its group chief digital officer.

Before throwing out solutions to get more seniors on board with telemedicine, there is a need to empathise with them better, said Professor Josip Car, director of the Centre for Population Health Sciences at Nanyang Technological University's Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.

"We can do more research on the barriers towards technological adoption... By analysing the statistics and understanding the elderly's experience and what they need, the better we can tailor our solutions," added Prof Car.

The Seri researchers also plan to re-engage the 520 participants within this year and find out how their perceptions of telemedicine have shifted, said Assistant Professor Tham Yih Chung, the other co-principal investigator of the study.

Telemedicine has expanded to physiotherapy, rehabilitation, and even audiology services being done over Zoom.

Prof Car remains optimistic. "Herd mentality and ease of access will change (people's) receptivity to these services. This is, in the same way, how most people now understand what it means to Google something or Facebook someone."