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Study Links Broadband With Health Care Savings

Health IT
The discussion of broadband and health care often turns on issues like the efficiencies to be gained through electronic medical records and telemedicine.

But a new study from a Washington think tank has gone a step further and linked the adoption of broadband with lower rates of depression among the elderly.

How much lower? Twenty percent, according to the Phoenix Center, a nonprofit group whose researchers fashion economic models to inform the technology policy debate.

The study highlighted the effects of something that might be termed digital disenfranchisement. Noting research from the Pew Internet Project that pegged the broadband adoption rate among the elderly at 42 percent -- well below the national average -- the Phoenix analysts argued that increased Internet usage could drive down health care costs associated with treating depression.

Elderly Americans without Internet access can find themselves increasingly isolated, the report argued, citing past studies that have correlated Internet usage with firmer connections with family and friends and decreased loneliness.

"Maintaining relationships with friends and family at a time in life when mobility becomes increasingly limited is challenging for the elderly," said Sherry Ford, a co-author of the study. "Increased Internet access and use by senior citizens enables them to connect with sources of social support when face-to-face interaction becomes more difficult."

Citing a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, the Phoenix Center estimated the annual costs associated with depression at $100 billion. Among non-working Americans 55 and older, excluding those not living in nursing homes, the researchers argued that spurring Internet adoption to the elderly could reduce that cost by $2 billion.

George Ford, the Phoenix Center's chief economist and a co-author of the study, framed the research around the policy debate swirling around government efforts to expand broadband access and adoption.

"Efforts to expand broadband use in the U.S. must eventually tackle the problem of low adoption in the elderly population," Ford said in a statement. "The positive mental health consequences of Internet demonstrate, in part, the value of demand stimulus programs aimed at older Americans."

The federal government is currently working to distribute $7.2 billion in grants and loans for broadband projects allocated in the February stimulus bill.

The Phoenix Center researchers analyzed survey responses from more than 7,000 Americans 55 years of age or older for the study, excluding those who are still working or living in nursing homes.