“Frank, you’ve got coronary heart disease,” said the cardiologist at Duke Health, during an anxiety-filled visit. “But don’t worry, we’ve got just the thing to help you manage it at home.”

“Betty, you’ve got to take better care of your diabetes!” the nurse at UNC Health told her. “I’ll discharge you with a device to help you keep it under control.”

“Margaret, your COPD has been flaring up more often,” the pulmonologist at WakeMed mentioned with concern. “I think it’s time we get you set up with a new device to help you breathe.”

These could be your aging parents, leaving the doctor’s office with a glimmer of hope. Unfortunately, none of them will get the help they need. And, they may die because of it.


Because of insurance companies denying claims? Due to product shortages?

No. It’s much simpler than that.

It’s because they don’t know how to use these new digital health tools. The tech-enabled devices will sit in their boxes, unused. Lifesaving potential, untapped. Weeks later, your parent lands in the hospital with a severe complication – one that could have been prevented with the right digital health intervention.

Due to lack of tech literacy in the older population, these patients – and millions like them – won’t benefit from these life-changing tools.

Running one of the fastest-growing health tech startups in America, I see this every day in our communities, across North Carolina and beyond. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

The meteoric rise of digital health innovation is colliding with the stubborn challenge of the “digital skills divide” for senior citizens. It’s a collision that threatens to exacerbate dangerous health disparities, as the patients who could benefit most from health tech advances are too often the ones left behind.

It’s a preventable disaster, and as a society, we urgently need to take action.

Health equity can’t exist without digital equity

The digital revolution in healthcare is here. Rapid advances in AI, telemedicine and remote patient monitoring are reshaping how care is delivered and received across our country.

Our aging population, those most affected by chronic disease, finds themselves on the periphery of the digital health revolution. Outside, looking in. Unable to access the very tools designed to help them.

As the CEO of CareYaya Health Technologies, I’ve witnessed firsthand the positive impact that digital health tools and AI can have on the well-being of older adults. Sadly, I’ve also witnessed the barriers that older adults face in utilizing this technology.

The consequences are dire. As health tech rapidly advances, a widening digital divide threatens to marginalize our elders further, compromising their ability to lead healthy, autonomous lives.

In this article, I illuminate the path toward a future where every elder has the tools and knowledge to navigate the digital health landscape confidently. Digital health literacy is a critical yet overlooked component in today’s shifting healthcare ecosystem – and there is something we can all do about it!

The enormous potential of digital health technology to save lives

The benefits of increasing digital health literacy among seniors are profound and far-reaching. The American Medical Association recently recognized digital health literacy as a key social determinant of health for older adults, as critical as access to food and transportation. By equipping our seniors with the skills to navigate the digital world, we empower them to manage their health proactively.

Source: CareYaya AI

For coronary heart disease, there are now mobile EKG devices that can record medical-grade electrocardiograms anytime concerning symptoms strike. Smaller than a credit card, these devices easily attach to a smartphone and can instantly analyze heart rhythms, detecting arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation that increase risk of stroke. Results can be securely sent to a cardiologist for review.

For diabetes, we have a proliferation of continuous glucose monitors. These devices use a tiny sensor worn on the skin to measure glucose levels in interstitial fluid every few minutes, day and night. Readings are sent wirelessly to a smartphone app, allowing patients to visualize trends, track how diet and exercise impact blood sugar, and share data remotely with their doctor. Some models can even alert patients if glucose rises or falls out of target range.

In COPD management, new “smart inhalers” use Bluetooth technology to detect when patients use their inhaler, tracking the date, time and number of puffs. This data synchronizes to an app where patients can log symptoms and triggers. Doctors can remotely monitor inhaler usage, identify patients who are relying too heavily on rescue medication, and intervene early to prevent lung function decline and hospitalizations.

Source: CareYaya AI

Technologies like these and others are being rapidly developed and brought to market by companies like CareYaya and other leading innovators in the health tech realm.

CareYaya, for example, has launched a suite of AI-powered digital health tools to help elders living with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Our exponentially growing impact has attracted the backing of the National Institutes of Health and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to roll out these tools nationwide. Yet even in our case, digital health literacy remains a key challenge for the people that stand to benefit the most from these innovations.

So, we decided to do something about it. Rather than wait around for government or large hospital systems to address this growing problem, we built a grassroots effort to help. And you can too.

History repeats: The high stakes of the digital divide for seniors and why it matters

We’ve seen this play out before with previous waves of tech disruption. The rise of e-commerce in the early 2000s left many seniors behind, struggling to navigate unfamiliar interfaces and wary of entering credit card information online. It took concerted efforts to bridge the digital divide and ensure older adults could participate in the online economy.

Today, we stand at a similar inflection point with digital health technology. Will we allow innovation to sprint ahead while leaving a generation behind? Or will we make the investments needed to ensure every patient, regardless of age, can take full advantage of the digital health revolution?

For America’s seniors, the consequences of the digital health literacy gap are profound. Chronic conditions skyrocket with age, especially as people live past 65.

(Source: BMC Public Health.)

Approximately 80% of older adults have at least one chronic condition, and 68% have two or more. Digital health tools offer a lifeline for seniors managing these conditions, enabling them to take a more active role in their health from home.

However, according to a Pew Research survey, over 40% of seniors do not feel confident using computers, smartphones, or the internet. Even more concerning, over 22 million older Americans lack internet access at home, cutting them off from digital health resources.

Without efforts to bridge the digital divide, we risk a future in which technological innovation exacerbates health disparities along generational lines. Seniors who can afford and navigate new digital health tools will enjoy better outcomes, while those on the other side of the divide will face a higher burden of unchecked chronic disease.

Bridging the divide: A community-driven approach

Tackling the digital health literacy crisis among seniors will require a society-wide effort. It begins with recognizing digital health literacy as a foundational skill. This literacy extends beyond the ability to Google symptoms; it encompasses understanding, processing, and applying health information to make informed decisions.

Government initiatives like the Biden Administration’s Internet for All program, which allocates over $40 billion to expand high-speed internet access nationwide, are an important step toward digital equity. However, simply connecting seniors to the internet is not enough. Many older adults remain hesitant to engage with digital health tools even when they have the technical means to do so, citing concerns around privacy, security and ease of use.

To truly move the needle on digital health literacy, we need to meet seniors where they are with high-touch, personalized support. This is where grassroots initiatives can make a tremendous impact. By tapping into seniors’ existing social networks and trusted relationships, these programs can help older adults build confidence with digital tools in a way that feels accessible and non-threatening.

At CareYaya, we pioneered a new model for community-driven digital health literacy interventions. Through our Joygiver program, we recruit and train tech-savvy college students to lead free digital skills workshops for seniors at libraries, senior centers, faith-based organizations, and other community hubs. By leveraging the unique energy and empathy of this volunteer corps, we are able to provide seniors with the one-on-one support they need to get comfortable with technologies like smartphones, tablets and health apps.

CareYaya’s UNC Students teaching VR to elders at United Methodist Church in Raleigh

Our approach centers on teaching practical digital health literacy skills in a warm, supportive, and judgment-free environment. Joygivers start by helping older adults develop fluency with fundamental tools like email and web browsing, then layer on training with next-generation health technologies as participants build confidence. Seniors in our workshops learn how to look up reliable health information online, engage with patient portals, conduct video visits, use health monitoring devices, and even try out cutting-edge tools like AI symptom checkers.

The early results of our program have been remarkable. In post-workshop surveys, over 90% of participants report feeling more confident using digital health tools and intend to use them regularly moving forward. By empowering seniors to take charge of their health in the digital age, we are laying the groundwork for better outcomes and quality of life as they age.

These grassroots digital health literacy interventions are a powerful complement to “top-down” efforts driven by healthcare providers and technology companies. For example, the American Medical Association has called on physicians to proactively screen patients for digital literacy as a key vital sign and connect those with low tech readiness to community resources. Leading health systems like Kaiser Permanente have built digital health literacy training into their care models, offering seniors hands-on support with tools like patient portals and remote monitoring devices.

CareYaya Student Joygiver showing elders how to use ChatGPT to answer health queries

On the industry side, digital health startups are starting to realize that designing age-friendly products is not only an ethical imperative but also a major market opportunity. Companies like CareYaya are going beyond one-size-fits-all solutions and incorporating features like larger fonts, simpler navigation, and built-in tech support tailored to the unique needs and preferences of older users.

Advancing digital health literacy will require this kind of multi-stakeholder, all-hands-on-deck approach. From the doctor’s office to the Silicon Valley garage, we all have a part to play in ensuring innovation lifts up seniors rather than leaves them behind. But it is the power of human connection, exemplified by community-driven programs like CareYaya’s Joygiver Corps, that will ultimately turn the tide. By empowering seniors to embrace their digital health destinies, one neighbor at a time, we can spark a grassroots movement that transforms what it means to age in the 21st century.

Fulfilling the promise of digital health innovation for all

The digital health revolution can democratize access to the knowledge, tools, and support that have historically been reserved for the most privileged. It can leverage innovation not to automate and depersonalize care, but to humanize and individualize it at scale.

Imagine a world in which every senior, regardless of income or zip code, can access the full power of digital health technology. A world in which AI-powered tools help patients understand their symptoms, access virtual triage, and connect with the right care at the right time.

This is the promise of digital health innovation. But it is a promise that will only be realized if we make a conscious and concerted effort to bring all patients along on the journey. We cannot afford to replicate the patterns of previous tech revolutions, in which the gains of innovation accrue disproportionately to the young, affluent, and digitally literate.

Healthcare is too important, too fundamental to our individual and collective wellbeing, to leave anyone behind. That is why digital health literacy must be treated as an essential component of health equity. It is a vision that will require disrupting entrenched ways of thinking and working in healthcare. But it is a vision worth fighting for.

Building one of the biggest digital health startups in America at CareYaya, I am energized by the challenge and opportunity ahead. By harnessing the power of technology and the force of human compassion, I believe we can write a new chapter in the history of healthcare – one in which every patient can access the care they need to thrive.

The choice is ours. Let’s roll up our sleeves, bridge the digital divide, and build a future in which the miraculous potential of digital health tech is accessible to not just some, but all. In the age of digital health, technological literacy isn’t a luxury – it’s a lifeline we must extend to all. And for the sake of millions of seniors whose lives and health hang in the balance, it’s a choice we must get right.

Editor’s Note: Neal K. Shah is the CEO of CareYaya Health Technologies, one of the fastest-growing health tech startups in America. He runs a social enterprise and applied research lab utilizing AI and human capital innovation to advance health equity through technology. Neal is a “Top Healthcare Voice” on LinkedIn with a 30k+ following, having led partnerships with top healthcare systems in America.