What Healthcare Gets Wrong About Millennials

December 17, 2016, 1:00 AM UTC
Photograph by Getty Images

Millennials are poised to become a major force in the $3 trillion a year healthcare market, and anyone working in the industry had better pay attention.

Earlier this year, my team at ghg | greyhealth group partnered with our sister company Kantar Health to survey more than 2,000 millennials to discover how they really manage their own healthcare. We found that this generation is less likely to trust physicians and far more inclined to consult online experts and other informal sources for advice. They are eager for the system to meet their needs, yet, players in healthcare continue to cling to an old model: a primary care physician serves as a trusted advisor for patients and a trusted intermediary for pharmaceutical companies and insurers. Millennials reject that model, and the industry needs to keep up or lose out.

Our study led us to possible solutions that apply not only to physicians, but to all players in the market. Here, then, are five rules for the healthcare industry in dealing with millennials:

Get on the same page. Today’s young adults do not define health as simply the absence of disease, the way other generations do. For this generation, health goes way beyond The Merck Manual to include mental health, fitness, longevity, healthy lifestyles, and more. To millennials, exercise and nutrition are as essential to healthcare as antibiotics are to curing infection.

Gain their trust. Millennials have lived through the financial crisis, 9-11, skyrocketing academic debt and one of the most divisive and controversial elections in history. It’s no wonder, then, that they tend to mistrust authority. In our survey, just 58% of millennials said they trust their physicians compared with 73% of all others. Millennials have opinions. We need to listen to them, build on their knowledge, and treat them with respect.

Be a team member. Taught to feel empowered, millennials view themselves as a part of the solution and not merely recipients of care. Only a minority (41%, vs 68”% of non-millennials) view doctors as the single best source of information, and they are unlikely to rely on a doctor as their sole advisor. Professionals need to realize that when millennials arm themselves with reams of information from a variety of sources, they shouldn’t get defensive. Instead, ask them what they know and take it from there.

Bolster their confidence. Self-assured as they may seem, our qualitative research showed that millennials often struggle to make decisions. Paralysis of analysis is a widespread side effect of life in an information age. So open minded that they tend to question their own judgment, even after they appear to have settled a question, millennials need large doses of reassurance to go along with any prescription. “They have access to all the information in the world, but they’re incredibly insecure,” says Natasha Burgert, MD, a pediatrician from Kansas City. Millennials need partners to advise and support them, to refer them to reliable online sites and provide shortcuts through the maze of health information and bureaucracy.

Join the fold. As young people move away from religion and civic engagement, they still need ways to connect. Millennials crave contact with like-minded people who can reinforce and advance their interests, so much so that they think about health and fitness as something akin to a religion. In fact, many view their gyms and yoga studios as a kind of church, where they go for connection, comradery, spiritual fulfillment, and even fun. This hunger for association represents an opportunity for the healthcare industry to build different types of communities around healthy living.

Millennials’ influence is growing. Nearly 30% of millennials are now parents, and as they start becoming responsible for not only their own health but also that of their children, their influence will grow exponentially. By listening to millennials and helping them lead healthier lives, we will be supporting not only this generation but also the generation to come.

Lynn O’Connor Vos is chief executive of ghg | greyhealth group. It and Kantar Health are part of WPP, a communications services group.

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