WEDNESDAY, Jan. 12, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- Even as the Internet becomes an increasingly rich source of health information, most American seniors remain out of the loop, a new survey finds.

Less than a third of the 65-and-older population has ever gone online, and only 21 percent has sought health information online, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported Wednesday.

Those with lower incomes and less education are less apt to tap into the Web's wealth of offerings. Only 15 percent of seniors with household incomes under $20,000 a year, for example, have gone online. The proportion that uses the Internet rises to 40 percent among seniors with incomes of $20,000 to $49,000, and to 65 percent among those with incomes of $50,000 or more a year.

Prior studies have shown a similar "digital divide" within the general population based on socioeconomic status. "Seeing it so starkly among seniors was an eye-opener," said study author Victoria Rideout, vice president and director of Kaiser's Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health.

"As long as that divide is there," she added, "it limits the potential of the Internet to be useful to those in need of health information."

That worries some senior advocates, particularly as Medicare prepares to roll out a new outpatient drug benefit scheduled to take effect in 2006.

"The Internet is a wonderful tool for relatively sophisticated, well-trained counselors. It's sometimes a valuable tool for children or other caregivers for people with Medicare. [But] it's only occasionally useful for Medicare consumers themselves," said Robert M. Hayes, president and general counsel of the Medicare Rights Center, a New York City counseling service for Medicare beneficiaries.

At the time of the Kaiser survey, only 2 percent of all seniors had gone online to, and further studies indicate the proportion of older users remains small.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency that administers Medicare, provides extensive online tools for deciphering Medicare benefits. The same information is available by calling 1-800-Medicare, a spokesman said. And many beneficiaries are able to tap into the Internet via counselors at senior centers or Web-savvy relatives.

Kaiser's report is the first to closely examine seniors' use of the Internet for health information and how that may change as the baby boom generation ages. The results are based on a nationally representative telephone survey of 1,450 adults aged 50 and older conducted last March and April.

Seniors said they don't use the Internet at all or not very often mainly because they never learned how (44 percent); it is too complicated (33 percent); and there's nothing on the Web that interests them (27 percent). One in four said it was too expensive; the same number believe that someone will try to cheat, steal or take advantage of them online.

Among the minority that goes online for health information, 37 percent said they've looked for drug information -- the most popular online topic.

There's reason to believe the Internet will play a larger role in informing older Americans as baby boomers age into Medicare. The survey shows substantial numbers of people aged 50 to 64 -- America's next generation of senior citizens -- are going online (70 percent) and more than half are using the Internet to look for health information (53 percent).

The challenge facing health advocates and policymakers is to make the Internet accessible and useful for the current senior population.

"First of all, I think we need to start a dialogue about what it's going to take to get more seniors online so they can make use of this tool," Rideout said.

But she also stressed the continued need for community-based outreach efforts by skilled health-benefits counselors. With Medicare's drug discount program launched last June and the upcoming prescription drug benefit, seniors are being called on to make increasingly complex choices, Rideout explained: "The Internet is not an instant solution for making those choices."

More information

Survey results are available online at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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