Baby boomers embrace technology as much as younger users

Older adults could especially benefit from the integration of technology into health care

Baby boomers adopt tablets, wearable devices and other technologies just as energetically as younger users, according to participants at the Booming Tech forum, which focused on technology use of that generation.

Those born between 1946 and 1964, "are not a generation new to technology," said Joseph Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Automated teller machines and cellphones, among other technologies, were developed during their lifetimes, so they have grown to expect that technology will improve their lives, he said at the event Thursday in Boston.

"This notion that older adults don't love technology -- that's not on older adults, that's bad technology," he said.

Plus, this demographic, which makes up the majority of the U.S. population, can afford to spend money on tablets, cars with onboard computers and wearable devices.

Baby boomers, who are between 50 and 68 years old, expect technology to move into predictive analytics, offer enjoyment and help them live better lives while connecting with friends, Coughlin said.

"What we want is fun," he said, not another wearable device with a sensor "that says old guy walking." Instead, they may want to use Microsoft's Kinect motion and gesture technology to work out virtually with friends, a project his team worked on with senior citizens centers. "

Applying technology to medical care will blur the lines between being a patient and being a consumer, and could yield benefits that improve baby boomers' health, said speakers at a separate health IT discussion panel. The challenge, though, lies with incorporating IT into a complex medical care system that includes health insurance companies and, increasingly, technology vendors.

"I don't see how we can provide better care without using technology," said Michael Cantor, chief medical officer of the New England Quality Care Alliance, a network of about 1,800 doctors in Massachusetts that is affiliated with Tufts Medical Center.

The complexities of the health-care system, including doctors, insurance companies and increasingly electronic-health-record vendors, mean the industry changes slowly.

"We have the technology," Cantor said. "The whole system isn't incentivized to use this technology." He noted that insurance companies, for example, do not reimburse doctors for telemedicine.

Care providers view telemedicine as a way to help control medical costs and provide care, especially to baby boomers, some of whom have chronic conditions that require constant monitoring.

Baby boomers are becoming comfortable using technology in their health care, said Don Berwick, a pediatrician and senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, who is also running for governor of Massachusetts. Approximately 34 percent of the people who visit his campaign's Facebook page are baby boomers, he said.

Electronic health record (EHR) vendors are partly to blame for the slow adoption of health IT, said Berwick, who also ran the U.S. government's Medicare and Medicaid health care programs. EHR companies design systems that aren't interoperable and physician practices, especially smaller ones, struggle with exchanging patient data over different software systems.

Entrepreneurship isn't a young person's game, said speakers on a panel discussing baby boomers who form startups.

"There's a myth that you have to be 21 to be an entrepreneur," said Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. Forming a company isn't dependent on age. Instead, a person has to be "willing to do something different than everyone else," he said.

In fact, baby boomers' life experience may give them an advantage when it comes to starting a company. They understand risk tolerance better, said Jeanne Sullivan, co-founder of StarVest Partners.

As millennials -- generally defined as the generation born from 1980 to 2000 -- start aging, their reference points will change and they'll begin to develop technologies that benefit baby boomers, said Perry Hewitt, chief digital officer at Harvard University, who spoke on how those generations use technology.

"You build what you know," said Zachary Hamed, a designer at Bowery, a software development startup in New York, who was on the panel with Hewitt. But real value comes when technology finds uses beyond what it was originally designed for, he said.

Fred O'Connor writes about IT careers and health IT for The IDG News Service. Follow Fred on Twitter at @fredjoconnor. Fred's e-mail address is fred_o'connor@idg.com

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