Reconsidering Email Reminders for Older and Low-Income Patient Populations

Our team is often asked about best practices for sending appointment reminders via email to various demographic groups. And we’ve found that many people make assumptions based on age and income level, in particular, about whether or not someone uses email.

But we’re not convinced that’s the right way to look at things.

In one of my previous posts about the different types of appointment reminders to send and when, I stated that the “perfect” appointment reminder system is one that balances the needs of the practice with the needs of the patient.

Every patient’s needs will be different, regardless of his or her demographics. Patient demographics, though helpful in identifying and categorizing—as well as billing—patients, are not reliable indicators of individual patients’ preferences, communication or otherwise.

Let’s take a look at a couple of myths surrounding email use and older and low-income patients—and why email reminders are an effective communication channel for all demographics.

Many Older Patients Welcome Reminder Emails

I don’t think it’s an uncommon assumption that most older people don’t regularly use or engage with technology. This assumption then leads some people and practices to think that sending email or text-message appointment reminders to seniors is a waste of time. However, that’s simply not the case.

The fact is that more than half of U.S. seniors—adults age 65 and older—use the internet or email. In addition, more than 40 percent of seniors own a smartphone, up nearly 25 percent since 2013. And tech use among older generations is only going to continue to grow.

So, while many seniors don’t use internet or email or have a smartphone, just as many do, making email reminders a valuable messaging strategy for older patients.

Take my parents, for example, who are in their 70s. You can email, text, or call my mom, and she’d respond regardless of the method. My dad, on the other hand, is a different story; regardless of which method you use to try and contact him, you’re more likely to reach my mom again. (If you’re lucky, he might answer a phone call to the home number.)

Both of my parents are the same age and belong to the same income group, and yet, despite their age and income similarities, their communication preferences differ greatly.

On the other end of the spectrum, my kids, who are in their early 20s, will generally acknowledge receiving a message (ignoring their response rate because, as the parent, there may be other factors involved) regardless of which message type I choose to send. However, though more millennials use email than seniors, there are still plenty millennials who don’t. But does that mean you should stop sending email reminders to millennial patients? Certainly not!

Low-income Patients Use Email, Too

In addition, an assumption I think is also common is that due to lack of resources, low-income patients neither have access to nor regularly use the internet or email. Again, though, that’s not the case. In fact, a recent Pew survey found that 77 percent of adults from households earning less than $30,000 a year use the internet.

Moreover, roughly seven in 10 adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year own a smartphone. And generally, owning a smartphone translates to increased internet use, as well as more frequent use of communication features, including email, text, and voice calls.

Evidence That Email Reminders Are Effective for Different Demographics

The real question isn’t whether older or low-income patients use email; rather, it’s whether the patient in front of you uses email.

That’s how the question should be asked to each patient that comes through your doors: “Do you use email?” If the patient answers yes, then email is an effective communication channel for him or her.

Remember: It’s all about balancing the needs of your practice with the needs of your patients.

While some may think that email open and response rates are lower among practices serving primarily older or low-income patient populations, the truth is that we see high percentages of open and response rates across practices that serve vastly different patient populations.

Sure, your typical Federally Qualified Health Center will have a lower success rate when attempting to deliver an email message compared with a cosmetic dermatology practice attempting to do the same. But that doesn’t change the fact that email is still very much an effective delivery method for patients belonging to older and low-income demographics.

Keys to a Successful Email Messaging Campaign

Patient demographics aside, a common misconception I see regarding emails is that a practice must have a lot of patient email addresses before including email in its messaging strategy. Again, that’s simply not true.

As long as you don’t rely exclusively on email messages (something we’d never recommend), they simply serve as an additional communication channel for patients who have given you their email address.

Two key steps to creating a successful messaging campaign are A.) designing efficient forms, and B.) training frontline staff to collect accurate, actionable contact information from patients at every visit. And using data from Vital Interaction’s Automated Patient Interaction System to identify invalid phone numbers and email addresses ensures that your patient information stays up to date.

Want to read more helpful, actionable content? Click here to read more of our team’s top patient management tips and strategies.

Sources: pewinternet.org, pewinternet.org, pewinternet.org, pewsocialtrends.org

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