In his latest column, Neil Paul looks at if age really is a barrier to tech or whether it is down to user interface and experience. 

I was recently honoured to be a speaker on a conference arranged by BCS’ (Primary Health Care specialist group)on the future of digital in primary care. As you can imagine there was a lot of talk of new gadgets, new software, the change in working from face to face to e-triage, e-consult, video consultations and the data we might get from wearables and the like. I think it fair to say that quite a few, including me, expressed a concern that could our older generation cope with all the new tech?

In some ways, although unmeaning, this was from a patronising point of view. There is a feeling old people don’t get tech. They were born before the computer revolution and don’t understand it. A colleague the other day said something about it being difficult for a patient who was 60 as if everyone above a certain age just thinks computers are magic or complicated.

Well, I’m 50 and I remember pre internet but I get IT. My recently deceased father who was 83, used to put PCs together as a hobby for friends and family and he got IT. Our data suggests the elderly population are our bigger users of online services (they are the ones getting most care) so I think the debate should be less about getting it and more about how easy it is to use.

What my father struggled with in later life was hearing, seeing and touch. He was going blind, hard of hearing and his fine motor and touch deteriorated. Not a great combination for using a computer, never mind a touch screen phone.

I spent many a frustrated hour trying to explain to him over the phone which button to press and how to get to a certain function. The fact he had a slightly different model, had increased the icon and font size in an attempt to read them meant every screen of his looked different to mine and unlike his PC, where I installed TeamViewer to watch what he was doing and help, there is no such way of doing that on an iPhone (that I know of).

Thinking about user experience 

People talk about the user interface and user experience, that computers are a long way away from the simplicity of a kettle, or an old-fashioned phone or I was going to say TV but our new one has 3 remotes and I think would confuse my father.

So, I worry that tech is becoming the future for people with good senses and will leave out the infirm, not just the old. Now don’t get me wrong, Windows 10 and iOS both have a range of what I think are called accessibility features. You can turn on high contrast text, have words spoken to you and have on screen magnifying glasses but while they might be built into the OS, do all the apps use it? Have you ever tried to set it up – remotely?

There isn’t a lot of documentation that I can find. Imagine you are partially sighted or have numb fingers or just don’t get tech (as there are some that don’t), can you read it and understand it well enough to setup your PC or phone to use it? I’m not aware that any shop offers a bespoke home service setting this stuff up? Perhaps someone does? I think one of the banks used to talk about digital angels, but I think that was more come in and we will teach you to use our banking software – not a bad idea given there are no branches.

Do GP practices need to think about teaching patients how to use online services to reduce the reliance on using the phone? I once said to our in-house practice team who were whinging slightly about people using the repeat prescribing system wrong – how do any of our patients know what they are meant to do? Just hoping that Boots will tell them isn’t enough.

Do we need primary care digital angels? Or do we need user experience designers to think about these things. Those are just some things to think about.