The Digital Divide in Health-Related Technology Use: The Significance of Race/Ethnicity

Uchechi A. Mitchell, PhD; Perla G. Chebli, MPH; Laurie Ruggiero, PhD; Naoko Muramatsu, PhD

Disclosures

Gerontologist. 2019;59(1):6-14. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Background and Objectives: Technology can enhance the health and quality of life of diverse populations and may play an important role in reducing health disparities. Although a "digital divide" between the young and the old has been noted, it is unclear whether the use of technology for managing health differs by race/ethnicity among older adults. This study uses nationally representative data from community-dwelling older Americans to characterize racial/ethnic differences in health-related technology use.

Design and Methods: Data came from 1,336 white, black, and Hispanic adults aged 54 and older who completed the 2014 technology module of the Health and Retirement Study. Racial/ethnic differences in overall health-related technology use were assessed using Poisson regression. Then, F-tests were used to assess differences in the use of phone calls, text messages, E-mails, social media, health management sites, health-related mobile applications, web searches, and brain games for health purposes.

Results: Compared to whites, older blacks and Hispanics were less likely to use technology for health-related purposes after accounting for demographic characteristics, education, and health conditions. They were also less likely to make or receive phone calls, use health management sites, search the web for health information, and use brain games for their health.

Discussion and Implications: Older racial and ethnic minorities are less likely than whites to use certain technologies when managing their health. These findings highlight the importance of understanding the patterns of health-related technology use across racially and ethnically diverse populations to appropriately tailor interventions aimed at improving minority health and eliminating health disparities.

Introduction

Interest in technology is growing in aging and public health research and practice because of its potential for improving the delivery of health interventions (Bennett & Glasgow, 2009), social engagement and connectedness (Czaja, 2018; Czaja, Boot, Charness, Rogers, & Sharit, 2018; Kim, Lee, Christensen, & Merighi, 2017), and physical and mental health, even among the oldest members of society (Sims, Reed, & Carr, 2017). A number of technologies are now available that can help maintain and improve the health, functioning, and quality of life of older adults (Schulz et al., 2015). They include communication technologies such as E-mail and text messages, information-seeking technologies such as health management sites and internet search engines, and technologies for networking and entertainment such as social media and brain games. However, we have limited knowledge of the extent and nature of racial/ethnic differences in the use of these technologies for health, especially among older adults. This knowledge gap is problematic given recent calls for technology-based interventions to meet the needs of specific racial/ethnic groups and other historically underserved communities (Gibbons, 2011; Latulippe, Hamel, & Giroux, 2017; Montague & Perchonok, 2012; Valdez, Gibbons, Siegel, Kukafka, & Brennan, 2012). A better understanding of how technology use differs by race/ethnicity could improve the effectiveness of these interventions. Accordingly, the objective of this study was to assess racial/ethnic differences in health-related technology use among a representative sample of older Americans.

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