A Generation of Digital Patients is Coming: Is Healthcare Ready?

Sept. 22, 2016
I recently had a captivating conversation with Anil Jain, M.D., of the Watson Health business unit, about the next generation of healthcare consumers and what it means for the industry going forward.

When I think about how technology has advanced so rapidly lately and how consumers now get their information at their convenience and on their own time, it’s hard to even imagine how the “old world” used to be.

Being a big sports fan, I remember when I was a kid watching “SportsCenter,” ESPN’s flagship TV show for years that would give viewers a compilation of the day’s news and best highlights across all sports. The reason why the “SportsCenter” model has been so appealing is because if you missed a game, or even part of a game, all of the best pieces of it could still be seen; even better, the highlight-based show would run on loop, meaning that if you missed your team’s action in the first hour, you would be able to get it again. But over the last five years, “SportsCenter” ratings in the 18-to-34-year-old demographic are down 36 percent, according to SportsBusiness Daily.

What explains the ratings drop? In today’s era of rapid technology and having everything available at the fingertips, consumers don’t need to wait for someone else’s clock to get their information. Heck, they don’t even need to reach for the remote anymore. All highlights, news, and analysis can be gotten right from the smartphone. Gone are the days where I’m not sure if the Mets won or not and who did well—I could get alerts on my iPhone with all that information and more! The same holds true for other industries, like transportation, when flagging down a taxi (or dare I saw walking!) is not nearly as efficient anymore as it is to request an Uber—again, right at your fingertips, on your smartphone.

So what does this all have to do with healthcare? Plenty, actually. I recently had a captivating conversation with Anil Jain, M.D., senior vice president and chief medical officer for Explorys (in April 2015, Explorys was acquired by IBM as a component of the newly formed Watson Health business unit), and practicing physician at the Cleveland Clinic (Explorys is an innovation spinoff from the Clinic, and was actually formed in 2009 based on innovations that he developed while there). It would be hard to match the healthcare and healthcare IT knowhow of Dr. Jain, who also has a biomedical engineering background. Jain and I talked about various health IT-related topics, but one area I could tell he was particularly interested in was when I asked him about “Generation Z,” or in the realm of healthcare, “Patient Z.”

Indeed, Generation Z, the demographic group following the Millennials, born anywhere from the mid-1990s to the late-2000s, is the first truly “connected” generation. This means that “Patient Z” is surely going to demand tailored, individualized care that encompasses all aspects of their day-to-day health and they’ll want to be actively engaged in their care—and not only when they’re sick.

Speaking to the traits of this cohort, Jain said that this next generation “will be much more connected through technology,” which is more than just having a  bunch of screens to get their information from, but also being plenty more connected from a social media point of view. “They are more likely to use SnapChat then tools like Facebook, which Millennials use,” Jain said, making me pause to think about how crazy it is that Facebook will soon be considered “old.”

Jain also said this generation is much more likely to get information from the Internet, crowdsource when they’re not feeling well, and demand more transparency. “This is the same generation that when you ask them if they would get a car or use Uber, they would prefer to Uber around everywhere. They are more likely to rent than own; so instead of owning knowledge they will want to rent pieces of knowledge,” Jain told me.

What’s particularly interesting is that healthcare is really no different. Patients are going to the Internet for information, meaning health systems need to be able to market to this generation differently, Jain said. “It’s no longer going to be a paternalistic approach where they are being told to take a medication for a given condition. This generation will be asking, why did this condition even come about? Were you looking into my risk factors? They are the healthcare generation rather than the sick care generation. They are much more about curing rather than treating. And as they think about the affordability of healthcare, they look at every dollar they spend, so they want more transparency,” he said.

What does all this mean for providers, and hospital and health system businesses going forward? Jain said that health systems will need to find partners and will need to be transparent. “Think about the devices that this generation will be wearing on a regular basis and what their expectations will be when they walk into the doctor’s office. They are much more likely to be wearing wearables that track their fitness, they will expect their clinicians to use that information to personalize their health, and they will expect that physicians who care for them will be much more connected to them rather than having 15 minutes with them every three months.”

It’s truly amazing to me how quickly “patients” have become “consumers.” Though essentially the same thing, as Jain noted, the traditional view of a patient is a sick person who needs healthcare. But if you read the tea leaves and look into healthcare’s crystal ball, that is all going to change. More and more, individuals will not need to schedule a doctor’s appointment in an office for a visit; technologies like wearables and remote patient monitoring that ingest health data could soon be the norm. Robots in the OR might even be the standard before we know it! And, perhaps most important of all, providers will have to adapt to this changing culture, use technology, and take on more risk as reimbursement models that pay for volume will be replaced with ones that reward quality outcomes.

To this end, I asked Jain if the provider community is ready for this shift. He downplayed those concerns, pointing to similar conversations when the Internet started to be used for healthcare and everyone asked what doctors will do when patients start printing out health advice and bringing it into the practice. Jain added, “I think providers are quick to adapt to the market demand; they have great partners in the industry and great relationships with the community. What will be interesting to see is how medical schools educate future generations of doctors. Do hospitals start looking for these skills as they hire? Hospitals that will win with this Generation Z population are the ones that are preparing now,” he said.

I’m not quite sure if this adaptation will be as smooth as Jain thinks (I speak to plenty of grumpy MDs), but the greater point is that healthcare transformation is on its way. Jain now works for IBM, as innovative a company as it gets (you can read my Most Interesting Vendor profile on them from last year here). Continually, IBM stays ahead of the curve and evolves in an industry where there is too much standing pat. At the core of this is Watson , the Jeopardy!-playing supercomputer, that is now so much more than that, as it is built to mirror the human learning process through the power of cognition.

At the end of the day, we really don’t know how the healthcare ecosystem will take to this new era of digitization and this next generation of consumers.  We have seen mixed results in other industries. But make no mistake—this wave is coming, and it’s coming fast.

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