U.S. health care industry braces for aging Millennials

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The days of Baby Boomers being the largest demographic in the U.S. are coming to an end, as the Millennial population is projected to surpass the older generation in the next year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The shift likely will trigger changes in several industries, including health care, because of vast generational differences.

Millennials are defined by the Pew Research Institute as those born between 1981-1996 while the Baby Boomer generation encompasses those born between 1946-1964.

“It’s my experience that Millennials’ approach to health care varies considerably compared with Baby Boomers,” Dr. Ian Tullberg, UCHealth Urgent Care medical director in Colorado Springs, said in an email.

The differences

Baby Boomers tend to put their trust in their doctor’s hands without questioning, Tullberg said.

“Millennials, on the other hand, do more research online before seeing a doctor and sometimes have their expectations set before coming in to the doctor’s office,” he said.

There are advantages and disadvantages to the younger generation’s information-gathering, Tullberg said.

“It is a good idea to come up with a plan to manage health issues together, but when there are preconceived expectations, if those expectations are not met, the visit can, unfortunately, go poorly,” he said.

Research from the Employee Benefit Research Institute found Millennials are 51 percent more likely than Baby Boomers to research health care options, such as looking up the quality or rating of a doctor or hospital.

“This perhaps reflects their comfort in researching consumer decisions online, and applying the same consumer habits they use on Amazon or other retail online sites to the health care arena,” said Paul Fronstin, director of the Health Research and Education Program at EBRI, in a March 22 news release.

While the online rating systems may be helpful for Millennials, they also can be frustrating for doctors, said Dr. Meagan Jones, a local physician at Penrose-St. Francis Primary Care.

“It’s become a big concern as far as physicians because if you Google your name, you can come up on Healthgrades, Yelp and other health [websites] where patients rate you,” she said. “Some of them are just a number-based system, so if you only have five reviews and one is poor, it can ruin your whole review, which is a big concern because people are often choosing who to go to based on those reviews.”

Beyond researching facilities and providers, Millennials, on average, tend to be more understanding of current medical recommendations, Tullberg said.

“A primary example is with antibiotics,” he said. “The Baby Boomer generation grew up with physicians giving them antibiotics at the drop of a hat. So when physicians now try to educate Baby Boomers that antibiotics are not needed nor recommended in certain instances, the reply is often, ‘I’ve gotten this illness every year for 20 years and my doctor always gives me this antibiotic and I always get better.’”

Additionally, Jones says Millennials are more interested in alternative care, including acupuncture and massage.

“They also are more inclined to seek a second opinion about what they are looking for while Baby Boomers are often looking for more of the traditional relationship with their doctor,” she said. “I have a lot of patients in that older age group who are just looking for a regular relationship with their primary care doctor.”

Devon Ambler, employee wellness coordinator for UCHealth in Colorado Springs, said Millennials are drawn more to self-driven care.

“This generation is more in tune with wellness than previous generations so they seem to feel more comfortable making decisions on their own with less guidance, such as looking up exercises on Pinterest and working out, downloading apps for stress management and treating illnesses,” Ambler said in an email. “Step-by-step guidance can be helpful to older generations, but for Millennials it may feel unnecessary or even smothering.”

Current trends

One of the more noticeable differences between the generations already impacting the health care industry is Millennials’ usage of walk-in or same-day clinics as well as their participation in wellness programs.

“Millennials are more interested in the walk-ins or same-day appointments that are convenient and work with their hours,” Jones said. “They are typically busier than the older generation, [which is] now starting to move into retirement.”

The EBRI discovered Millennials are more than twice as likely than Baby Boomers to use a walk-in clinic. Thirty percent of the younger generation have used a walk-in clinic, compared to 14 percent of Baby Boomers.

However, in Colorado Springs, the current usage of walk-in clinics is high for all age groups due to the shortage of primary care providers, Tullberg said.

“It can be difficult for a patient to see their physician in a timely manner, including myself, for acute problems,” he said. “Walk-in clinics have a huge role for any age. At Urgent Care, we are strictly a walk-in clinic, and our patient numbers have been growing every year.”

Millennials also are more than twice as likely than Baby Boomers to participate in wellness programs, which typically are offered by employers as a way to decrease health insurance premiums, according to the EBRI.

Ambler moved from Denver to Colorado Springs last June to help add wellness programs for hospital employees.

“We have added more programs in recent years, both in-person and online,” she said. “These include the online disease management program called Omada and a new nutrition program coming out soon.”

The hospital also offers annual biometric screening events, flu shots, in-person wellness coaching, online health coaching for disease prevention, Bike to Work Day breakfasts, health fairs, food demonstrations and monthly financial classes.

Women in their 40s and 50s tend to be the biggest utilizers of the hospital’s programs thus far, Ambler said.

The health care industry also is seeing more of a demand for online and telemedicine. The EBRI notes 40 percent of Millennials are interested in telemedicine as opposed to 19 percent of Baby Boomers. Jones said, however, the hospital’s online patient portal, which includes back-and-forth conversation with physicians, seems to be equally used by both generations.

“They can send me an email or request a prescription refill, and Baby Boomers surprisingly use it and like it as well as Millennials,” she said. “It’s the over-65 population who won’t use the portal. They still want paper, and the traditional follow-up visits or phone calls.”