Why isn’t healthcare ready for millennials?

In April, baby boomers passed the crown as the largest living generation to millennials, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There are now more Americans between the ages of 18-34 than those aged 51-69.

When I posed the question, “What do you think of millennials?” to a group of friends at a party recently the comments were as snarky as you would imagine: They’re “entitled,” “convinced they know it all,” “only want instant gratification,” and a bunch of comments not suitable for this publication. Granted, it was at a party held to honor a couple who’ve been married longer than most millennials have been alive. But it was telling.

If those folks and some members of the “silent generation,” the ones who preceded the boomers, feel this way, does an industry that serves all living generations—healthcare—hold similar views?

The short answer: Yes. And that’s a problem looking ahead.

Meeting millennial demands

USA Today spent quite some time looking at this generation through the lens of healthcare. It found that millennials could force as many, if not more, changes on healthcare than the federal government. A twenty-something assistant manager at an upscale restaurant sees healthcare as “not getting it” when it comes to customer service, or what our industry now refers to as patient engagement. This budding restaurateur suggested the aim of hospital food service is to avoid the pangs of hunger; not provide an enjoyable meal.

This individual spoke about trying to make an appointment with a dermatologist that was met with a gruff response of an appointment in a month by an overworked scheduler. After a few web searches, he found a doctor with an opening later that week and was even able to schedule online. There’s a reason Zappos delivers shoes overnight. Millennials, who have grown up being able to get anything they want at the touch of a “buy now” button want things when they want them, which more often than not is “now.”

Healthcare must come to terms with the fact that most of its patient base is becoming not only more demanding but also far more sophisticated. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation suggests millennials “won’t stand for its inefficiencies with the same begrudging acceptance of previous generations.” It notes that older generations were more accepting if not tolerant of that which annoys millennials.

Millennials are well aware of the many improvements to better serve them that every other service industry has made, but that healthcare hasn’t. So the question, and it is a fair one, is, “Why haven’t you?”

A growing patient base

The Affordable Care Act caused a dramatic rise in the number of millennials interacting with the healthcare industry. However, there’s little evidence of any adjustment in how business is conducted to better serve what amounts to the core of healthcare’s customer base for the next several decades.

The Aite Group, a research and analysis firm headquartered in Boston, noted this rise likely will greatly boost the number and dollar volume of bills paid on mobile phones. Unfortunately, as Aite also pointed out, the great majority of healthcare bills are still mailed in paper form, at a time many have dubbed “web 2.0.”

Further research by Atlanta-based First Data, a provider of commerce-enabling technology and solutions, found that millennials prefer electronic payment methods over checks or cash. Proof is found in the explosive growth of mobile payment apps such as Venmo (if you haven’t heard of them, just ask a millennial). First Data’s analysts predict that mobile payments of all types will reach nearly $90 billion by next year. Aite projects healthcare payments by 2019 made on smartphones may represent 6% of the total. I believe the word that best describes that is insignificant. Perhaps a better word is arrogant; as in how the healthcare industry is behaving.

If healthcare providers hope to see higher grades on their patient engagement scorecards, they’d be well-advised to key on the wants and needs of millennials. They will quickly represent their fourth-biggest source of revenue.

This is the generation that grew up on video games, Google and other elements of the digital age. They’d rather communicate electronically than face-to-face. Which is why they’re not concerned about having a “relationship” with a provider. They care more about how healthcare is provided. Ease and convenience matters to them. And that’s a big reason why we’re seeing the rapid growth in retail clinics. Not surprisingly, research by PNC Healthcare found millennials have the heaviest usage rate as of such facilities, nearly twice that of boomers. 

Seemingly every large physician group, hospital network and private equity firm has jumped into the urgent care arena, along with the nation’s biggest pharmacy retailers, to embrace the so-called “drive-thru generation.” In their eagerness to capture millennials, they’re all missing a very critical element: the preferred way to pay is via mobile-friendly electronic billing.

Since most millennials don’t care to build a connection with a physician or a hospital, loyalty is hard won and short-lived. Good treatment evaporates with a bill that's difficult to comprehend and arrives weeks after the time of care, especially one printed on a piece of letter-sized paper. Which, incidentally, typically has a payment cycle of 90 to 120 days.

Bank of America found millennials check their phones 43 times a day to deal with things other than Snapchat, Twitter or BuzzFeed. When a bill arrives on a millennial’s phone, it gets paid, right then and there.

Now that’s instant gratification everyone in healthcare can appreciate, regardless of which generation we might belong to.