Essential Insights contributor, healthcare writer
Innovation Solutions Manager, Fuse by Cardinal Health
Editor's Note: This is the second article in a three-part series looking at different generations of patients (Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers) and how healthcare organizations can tailor their services to meet their unique characteristics.
Referred to as the "forgotten generation" and the "sandwich generation," the demographic cohort that is Generation X has spent the majority of its existence playing second fiddle. In healthcare, however, that's no longer the case. Now that most Gen Xers are in their 40s and early 50s, they're influencing the industry with their increasing call for services.
The older these 65 million people become, the more they need healthcare in all shapes and forms. But it also has to do with the hard facts of middle age, and the responsibilities Gen Xers have for both their children and parents. This so-called "slacker generation," as it was also known at one point, got up off the couch a long time ago to start raising families and launch their careers. Now they're the ones up late at night or running to the doctor’s office when kids get sick. And they're also often there in the hospital with mom or dad, helping their parents or in-laws make healthcare decisions.
If the Millennial Generation wants healthcare "on demand," Gen Xers want the same—but in a way that fits their families. The challenge for healthcare providers involves appealing to Gen Xers' modern sensibilities (they were the first generation to enter adulthood with the internet, and are no strangers to digital technologies) while also catering to their growing needs as caregivers.
So how should healthcare organizations tailor their services to better suit this cohort's growing needs?
Before Gen Xers came of age in the 1990s, patients tended to view their relationships with their providers as long-term commitments based on loyalty and trust. The pendulum swung toward "healthcare consumerism" as this generation brought up on brands and advertising from all directions began to shop for doctors like anything else. (For more information on healthcare consumerism, read "Patients as consumers: 5 healthcare take-aways from other industries.")
The Internet pushed this trend into overdrive by giving Gen Xers instant access to information they previously relied on their physicians to provide. Now, according to at least one recent survey, members of Generation X are "more likely to switch physicians and hospitals based on their most recent experience, not their overall past experience." So engaging and informing them is critical to building the provider-patient relationship with Gen Xers.
Health systems and providers can take simple steps to do this. For example, Placentia-Linda Hospital in California provides a patient guide, which includes examples of important questions to ask healthcare providers and space for note-taking.
Another simple measure is helping the patient better understand his or her diagnosis and treatment options. The National Patient Safety Foundation recommends the "Ask-Me-3 Format" approach, which provides answers to three simple questions: 1. What’s the problem? 2. What needs to be done about the problem? 3. Why does that need to be done?
A national survey by the healthcare database company Vitals found that Generation Xers, by and large, "don't trust their doctors," and are more likely than those from other generations to believe providers "care more about money than patient well-being." Perhaps it's no surprise that Gen Xers tend to shun medical advice, and only 56 percent have a primary care provider.
"I think this demographic is more skeptical than previous generations," said Kristina Redgrave, innovation solutions manager at Fuse Cardinal Health, the company's innovation center. To build trust and win Gen Xers over, Redgrave recommended healthcare organizations move toward increased transparency and strive to improve digital engagement. She said Gen Xers want to know the following: "What do your services cost? How are your physicians rated by other patients? And how are you communicating with patients between appointments when they're not in your facility?"
Gen Xers, like Millennials, will go online to research their conditions, investigate treatment options, and check the backgrounds and qualifications of their doctors. Redgrave added: "This generation views their care as more of a partnership. Providers should approach them like they're on the same team."
One way providers can approach Gen Xers as a team member is by working together to make decisions around procedures, treatments and care plans, based on clinical evidence that balances risks and expected outcomes with the patient's preferences and values.
The Mayo Clinic offers a Shared Decision Making National Resource Center, which provides example decision aids for patients and an implementation tool kit for organizations.
When Gen Xers need healthcare for themselves or their families, they don't want to wait around. A pair of surveys by The Advisory Board Company found that members of this generation want 24/7 access to their providers and expect to be seen within 30 minutes of their appointment time.
However, that access doesn't necessarily have to be in person, the Advisory Board reported. The vast majority of Gen Xers are open to using telehealth technologies when it comes to the care of a sick child, for example, and 72 percent would consider a "virtual visit" for a sick parent.
Gen Xers are in a powerful position when it comes to healthcare; they have control of their own health and wellbeing and influence the healthcare of others. "Given their family obligations with caring for themselves and their children and aging parents, they’re driving a large portion of healthcare spending decisions right now," Redgrave said. That will change with the coming generational shifts. But for now, she said, Gen X is in charge. "It's a good idea to listen to what they have to say."