Janet called me in a panic. "He's leaving. He told me he needs a change. He's moving in a month." I was stunned. They'd been married over 20 years. I always thought of them as the perfect couple and I told her so.
"Not Frank," she snapped. "My doctor. He blurted it out after the exam. He's retiring to Tucson for the golf."
Janet and I were born at opposite ends of the same year. We're boomers to the core, and as different as we are in so many ways, we share certain traits—with each other, and evidently, with a lot of others in our generation. It appears that one of them is steadfast loyalty to our health care providers.
"Older adults tend to stick with their physicians and depend on them for direction when it comes to all of their medical care, including which hospitals to use," Linda McCracken told me recently. McCracken is vice president of the health and science division of Thomson Reuters, and she's done a lot of research into how Americans use health care.
As readers of this column know, there are four generations of adults now extant in the United States: the Greatest or Silent Generation; baby boomers; Gen Xers; and Gen Yers, also known as Millennials. Researchers have identified patterns of behavior unique to each age group. As health care consumers, McCracken says, each generation makes decisions differently and it behooves physicians and hospitals to understand those differences in order to attract patients and build loyalty. In marketing terms, Thomson Reuters calls it achieving the "Five Rights: the right customer, the right service, the right time, the right message and the right medium."
For example, McCracken says members of the Silent Generation trust their physicians to make all their health care decisions, including which hospitals to use. Boomers, on the other hand, "fell in love with the Internet. They do a lot of research and ask a lot of questions. Doctors say, 'They exhaust me.' " In the end, though, boomers nearly always do what their physicians tell them to.
The younger generations show little or no such dependence. A Thomson Reuters white paper co-authored by McCracken, "Matching the Market: Using Generational Segments to Attract and Retain Customers," says Gen Xers and Millennials are much more likely to switch physicians and hospitals if the providers fail to meet expectations. What are those expectations?
Silents and boomers select hospitals "first by physician direction, then by prior experience, reputation and proximity to home," according to the white paper. Younger generations place less importance on location and long-term reputation, and are much more interested in their most recent experiences, including wait times and interaction with staff. If they have to sit in the waiting area for any length of time, they won't hesitate to go elsewhere for their next appointment. They also choose physicians and hospitals independent of each other.
All of that, and more, means providers need different strategies to reach different age groups. They need to know how and what messages resonate with the patients they want to attract, and which types of media will most effectively reach those patients—from direct mail to phone calls to TV, radio and the Web.
We'll consider those issues in upcoming installments of this column, which appears every Tuesday in H&HN Daily, and which usually—though not always—touches on generational issues that affect health care from a management, staffing or patient perspective.
In the meantime, Janet is bereft. "I never thought at my age I'd have to find a new doctor. I've been seeing this one forever. And now I have to start all over."