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How Well Do You Understand Millennial Patients?

According to sweeping generalizations, millennials are lazy, self-centered, entitled and addicted to “likes.” As patients, millennials have been characterized as flakes and flight risks — hardly the reliable types that older patients seem to be. But ask a young person and they’ll tell you they’re eager to form relationships with their healthcare providers.

“We are looking for someone we can relate to,” says Amber Robins, a Washington, DC area 31-year-old. “The age gap can be hard, but if I feel comfortable talking with someone, I can connect with them.”

In addition to her status as a bona fide 30-something, Robins treats millennials in her work as a family medicine physician. She is also a recipient of the 40 Under 40 Leaders in Health award from the National Minority Quality Forum.

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Relating to millennials might come more easily to Robins than it does to her older peers. But with a little knowledge and a willingness to make a few adjustments, any practitioner can attract and retain younger patients. Here are data-driven insights to help you understand how digital natives approach healthcare.

Millennials expect a digital-first experience

Almost all millennials (97 percent) use the internet, according to a 2018 Pew report. What’s more, 28 percent of them are smartphone-only internet users. Whether buying new shoes, ordering a burrito or paying their portion of the rent, millennials are far more likely than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers to reach for their phones. They have similar expectations when it comes to booking doctor’s appointments and getting lab results — that they should be able to do everything from their phones. One poll found that 71 percent of millennial patients want their providers to use apps for nearly all patient engagement, including appointment scheduling, sharing health information and generally managing care. Even intake forms traditionally filled out by hand before seeing the doctor seem like an antiquated waste of time to younger adults accustomed to e-forms and e-signatures.

“Allowing people to fill out patient forms electronically on their cell phones is typically something that millennials like,” says Velimir Petkov, DPM, a Clifton, New Jersey-based podiatrist. “This way, they can take care of it at their convenience. Who wants to sit in a doctor’s office with a clipboard, pen and five or 10 pages worth of paperwork? As a bonus, using electronic check-in helps us minimize wait times and man-made errors.”

Takeaway: Make sure your practice has online scheduling and patient portals with new patient forms, ideally optimized for mobile.

Millennials rely on the internet for health information

More than half of millennials (58 percent) research health and nutrition information on Google, according to a 2016 report by Vision Critical, a cloud-based customer intelligence software company. Coincidentally, that’s the same percentage of millennials who reported trusting doctors in a study conducted by Greyhealth Group and Kantar Health. By comparison, 73 percent of older respondents affirmed their trust in the medical community.

A bit of proactive research, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Though patients’ diagnoses may not always be spot-on, what they say about their findings can facilitate productive conversations. “Millennials want to be heard,” says Amber Ortega, MD, of Sharp Rees-Stealy San Carlos medical center in La Mesa, California. “They like having the opportunity to express themselves before the provider interrupts.”

“Being open-minded and giving millennial patients time to speak is something any provider can do to approach them,” Ortega adds, “despite any age gaps that may be present or any other barriers the provider may perceive.”

Takeaway: Listen closely and without judgment to younger patients’ ideas about their health. You’ll establish trust and confirm that you have their best interests at heart.

Millennials are loath to take time off from work

Despite stereotypes suggesting young people aren’t loyal or committed to their jobs, they are less likely to take off personal time than members of older generations. That’s according to a 2016 report from Project: Time Off, a U.S. Travel Association initiative aimed at encouraging Americans to use their vacation days.

Millennials, who report higher levels of job insecurity than older workers, are at least twice as likely to find taking time off difficult — because they fear losing out on a raise or promotion, they don’t want to seem replaceable and they want to show complete job dedication, among other reasons.

And while the report focuses on the millennial trend of skipping vacations because of job-related FOMO, the same mindset could make them reluctant to schedule weekday doctor’s visits during office hours. For that reason, “off-hours” appointments — after work and on weekends — appeal to millennial patients, as do video appointments and other forms of telemedicine.

“Millennials are coming to our clinics in growing numbers,” says chiropractor Chris Tomshack, CEO and founder of HealthSource holistic health clinics. “We have responded by being more convenient with appointment options during lunch, early morning and late evening to accommodate their busy schedules.”

Takeaway: Consider offering appointments outside of the usual 9-to-5, Monday through Friday slots.  

Millennials communicate via messaging

In line with their preference for all things digital, most millennials prefer to send texts than talk on the phone. In a 2016 poll of 500 millennials, 75 percent said they’d rather give up their phone’s call function than sacrifice texting. By way of explanation, 76 percent said they favor texting because it’s more convenient and easier to squeeze into a packed schedule, while 63 percent deemed texting less disruptive than voice calls and 53 percent just generally liked shooting off emojis more than shouting “hello” into a device. While HIPAA regulations and other restrictions may make communicating sensitive health information via SMS a nonstarter, secure patient portals and similar services allow for chats that work for both patients and practitioners. Timely responses will ingratiate you to younger patients who appreciate online accessibility.

“I use a portal system that lets patients see lab results,” Robins says. “I use it to shoot off messages when lab results come back. And when patients have questions or concerns, they email me and I try to get back to them as soon as I can — usually that same day. I understand the importance to millennials of getting information quickly.”

Takeaway: Use secure messaging to communicate with your patients.

Millennials are consumers of healthcare first, patients second

Millennials are discerning when it comes to how they spend their money, and that budget-conscious mentality comes through when they’re booking healthcare appointments. Thanks to Yelp, Facebook and the five-star rating systems featured on most transactional websites, user-generated reviews and rankings have become a huge component of millennials’ search for new PCPs or specialists. According to a 2015 PNC Healthcare survey, nearly half of millennials and Gen Xers use online reviews when shopping for healthcare providers, compared to 40 percent of Baby Boomers and 28 percent of seniors. 

Practices benefit from garnering positive online reviews. These consumer voices can promote patient-oriented experiences, including ease of booking, short wait times, transparent pricing, and responsiveness before and after appointments. “Millennials like transparency when it comes to their healthcare,” Petkov says. “Staying in touch, answering their questions and developing an ongoing open and honest relationship is important.”

Takeaway: Online reviews hold credibility, so encourage patients to rate your services.

Millennials think about health holistically

A study from Aetna found that millennials were considerably more likely than older generations to define “health” in terms of diet and exercise, whereas Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers were more likely to equate health with not being sick, as well as getting recommended screenings and preventive care. When you’re communicating with millennial patients, remember that promoting wellness might be just as important to them as avoiding sickness.

Takeaway: Talk to millennial patients about more than lab results and meds.

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