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“When I Was Your Age”: The Challenge of Generational Patient Engagement

By: DJ Curran, Senior Business Analyst, PDS | February 1, 2016


Generational differences and the Information Age have the most significant impact on patient care’s evolution from a paternalistic, physician-driven model to an engaged, patient-as-a-consumer one. Spurred by Meaningful Use measures and philosophies, organizations are hoping Patient Portals can facilitate the needed delivery changes and smooth the transition. In reality, these technologies will force care models to evolve and create an environment where patient engagement is the norm instead of the hope.


Elderly patients are the greatest consumers of healthcare. At present, the final members of the “Greatest Generation” are giving way to the “Silent Generation,” which characteristically looks to experts such as doctors as unquestioned resources and rarely raise their concerns. This dynamic has led healthcare organizations to brainstorm new ways to engage these patients in Patient Portal usage. How do we get these patients “interested?” Sending appointment reminders, health maintenance reminders, and lab test results electronically should work. Share stories about how they can prepare their healthcare questions in a brief summary so they don’t feel rushed (making them “oh, by the ways” and not worrying about “bothering” the busy doctors and nurses with a phone call). These methods have allowed practices to slowly adjust and ease into the ways Baby Boomers are going to ultimately rock their world.


A Changing Dynamic


Everyone agrees that the sheer volume of Baby Boomers, paired with dropping numbers of physicians and clinicians, will force a change in care practices. But there is also an unspoken expectation that this generation will somehow flip the paradigm and become highly engaged. In reality, this generation has been influenced by advertisements since childhood and healthcare has taken advantage of this (can you say, “Ask your doctor about ____?”)


Some may question the technological engagement of this group, but should realize this is the generation who lived through the advent of computers as the norm in workplaces, has adjusted to using email as a time-saving communication device and has seen the value of researching practical things on the Internet. Don’t forget: this is the generation most identified with questioning authority from war and higher education protests, to equal rights by race and gender.

Generation Xers and Millennials want information pushed to them and don’t understand why real-time, person-to-person contact is necessary beyond online chat. They do their own research well before making a choice or asking advice. They know they need a doctor to authorize a medication, but WebMD has already diagnosed their condition. This generation will not plan to save up their concerns until their annual physical – they are all about instant gratification and quickly open their Patient Portal app and shoot off their question, whether it’s 10 p.m. on a Saturday or 8 a.m. on a Tuesday.


Whether in an acute or ambulatory setting, providers currently feel they can control the level at which they engage with their patients; they only offer two same-day appointments or conduct their rounds at 5 a.m. To engage patients, they send targeted notices to diabetics who haven’t had their A1Cs or mass encouragements for flu shots.


In the future, patients will be so numerous, informed and electronically engaged through Patient Portals, apps and other communication methods that any provider who hasn’t evolved their practice to adjust will quickly be overwhelmed. Tomorrow’s patients will proactively reach out to their providers asking for the tests they know will be due soon, send regular questions wondering how a newly approved medication or complimentary care-published study could benefit their conditions and expect timely responses.


The next generation of patients is ready to engage – are you ready to engage with them?


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