Aug. 19, 2008 -- Medicare's web site isn't easy for many computer-savvy adults to use, a new study shows.
The study is summed up in a brief letter published in tomorrow's edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
The bottom line: Most of the study's participants had trouble using Medicare's web site to do certain assigned tasks -- such as choosing a prescription drug plan in Medicare Part D -- even though they had experience using computers.
"Participants also reported problems navigating within the web site and locating information," report the researchers, who included Sara Czaja, PhD, of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
A spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) says that CMS "constantly strives" to improve its web sites.
Studying Medicare's Web Site
The University of Miami study included 112 adults aged 50 and older in Miami. All had experience using computers; they were also English speakers with no mental, visual, or hearing problems.
For the study, they were asked to complete the following four tasks on Medicare's web site:
- Determine eligibility for home health care services
- Select a home health agency to meet specified needs
- Make a decision about enrolling in Medicare Part D (Medicare's prescription drug program) based on specified criteria
- Choose a drug plan and figure out how much it costs, based on specified medications
Participants also wrote comments about Medicare's web site and completed a questionnaire about the web site's usability.
The study shows that 69% of participants weren't able to specify eligibility criteria for home health services, 80% couldn't choose the correct home health agency, and 72% couldn't choose a drug plan or had trouble using Medicare's web site in making their choice.
Although participants rated the Internet, in general, as a good source of health information, they reported usability problems with the Medicare web site. People with less computer experience would likely have "even greater difficulty," Czaja's team writes.
WebMD asked the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to review the study and comment on it.
In an email to WebMD, Jeff Nelligan, CMS director of media affairs, notes that there were relatively few study participants, while there are 44 million Medicare beneficiaries and the Medicare web site averages more than a million hits a day. "Suffice is to say that more research is probably needed to assess the usability of the site, and should be performed by people who have a basic understanding of the size and complexity of the program."
"We understand fully the importance of the site to our beneficiaries, their family members, healthcare professionals, and other stakeholders," says Nelligan. "Indeed, the site averages more than a million hits a day."
Nelligan says CMS has "worked hard to organize and format our quality 'compare' tools -- for hospitals and nursing homes, for example -- in a consumer-friendly manner" and that all CMS online tools are "tested extensively with potential users of the site."
CMS also does research testing on the language, displays, and navigational features of the site. "We are constantly striving to improve our web sites inasmuch as we know how critical these resources are to our beneficiaries, their family members, and the healthcare community as a whole," says Nelligan.