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Millennials and Primary Care – It’s Complicated

Millennials have been accused of killing everything from chain restaurants to beer. It seems that now they are aiming for another thing that older generations have taken for granted, primary care. Patients in this cohort are increasingly opting to use clinics, urgent care centers, and online providers rather than primary care doctors, according to the Washington Post.

The Numbers

Millennials are the 83 million Americans born between 1981 and 1996. They represent America’s largest generation. Their fondness for convenience, immediate service, digital access, and price transparency has caused businesses in every sector to rethink how they approach these consumers. Healthcare providers should look at recent research as a strong signal that it is time to do the same.

In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 45% of 18- to 29-year-olds didn’t have a primary care provider. That number was significantly lower for older respondents. An earlier survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and Greenwald and Associates found something very similar, 33 percent of millennials did not have a regular doctor, compared with 15 percent of those age 50 to 64.

The Drivers

To some extent, the fact that older people are more likely to have an established relationship with a primary care doctor makes a lot of sense given that healthcare needs change as we age. However, there is also something more going on.

“There is a generational shift,” said internist Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School told the Washington Post. “These trends are more evident among millennials, but not unique to them. I think people’s expectations have changed. Convenience is prized in almost every aspect of our lives,” from shopping to online banking.

Another driver of the trend away from primary care is the length of time a new patient must wait for an appointment with a PCP. A survey by Merritt Hawkins found that the average wait time for a new patient appointment with a primary care doctor in 15 large metropolitan areas is 24 days, up from 18.5 days in 2014. To a millennial with an acute concern, waiting that long just seems silly when there are more than 2,700 retail clinics in the US to choose from.

The Downside

While immediate access to care in a walk-in clinic or even online might seem appealing, not having an established, long-term relationship with a primary care provider does have the potential for significant adverse health consequences.

These providers are tasked with focusing on the cause for the encounter. This can lead to over-prescription of antibiotics, and missed diagnoses for concerns that require more than one visit like hypertension and diabetes. Patients who rely on retail and online care may also be missing reminders and support for preventative care such as immunizations, mammograms, and eye exams.

The Opportunity

Providers who wish to grow their practice by attracting Millennials and keeping them coming back, have an opportunity to leverage technology to provide the convenience that modern patients want while still developing a long-term relationship.

Platforms that allow for online appointment setting and digital messaging help take some of the friction out of “going to the doctor” for patients. Younger people want to be able to receive notifications and communicate with their provider via text or some other messaging application.

Offering the option of video visits is another way that primary providers can compete with the ease of retail and online clinics. Telemedicine allows practices to see more patients in less time, reducing wait times for appointments. It also makes it possible to extend office hours or offer weekend appointments without adding office staff or increasing expenses.

By adapting and embracing the digital lifestyle of younger adults, primary care practices can increase revenue, inspire patient loyalty, and offer better health outcomes than ad-hoc care.