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Assessing the Generational Differences in Patient Engagement

Generational differences in patient engagement pose a challenge to providers and hospital leaders, prompting them to become nimbler in patient experience efforts.

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Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- Creating meaningful patient engagement is a difficult feat for clinicians. Although a litany of patient engagement strategies can ease this job, doctors and nurses still face a wide array of patient personalities that can influence how a patient interacts with her care. To add insult to injury, providers also have to navigate a series of generational differences in patient engagement.

Professionals across all industries are currently looking into how to tackle generational differences in the workforce. Hot takes regarding how younger and older people relate in the workforce flood LinkedIn and Twitter feeds, ideally helping employees better interact with coworkers of a different generation.

Things are not much different in healthcare, as providers seek input on how to better engage different age groups in their own healthcare, according to Alison Lemay, the associate vice president of family and patient experience at UMass Memorial Medical Center.

“Depending on the age or generation of the patient, they receive and understand healthcare differently and different things resonate with them,” Lemay said in an interview with PatientEngagementHIT.com.

“The way clinicians might explain something to somebody who's 65 is different than how clinicians would explain it to somebody who's 25 because different words resonate with them, and patients pull out different things that are important.”

READ MORE: Understanding Generational Differences in Patient Engagement

Lemay and her team at UMass Memorial are currently working on strategies to help providers overcome the challenges posed by generational differences in patients. Patient teach-back, for example, is a great engagement and education strategy because it works within a patient’s own cognitive framework.

When clinicians ask patients to explain a health concept, the clinician can assess what resonated with the patient and what did not. That insight is possible whether the patient is 18 or 80.

“We're also doing a lot of work on behavioral standards throughout the organization,” Lemay explained. “For example, what respect means to one generation is different from what respect means to another generation. Something that is seen as disrespectful for one generation could be accepted as a respectful action for another generation.”

In many ways, work to address generational differences in healthcare are similar to other efforts to address patient differences. Doctors study the differences between patients from different racial demographics, ensuring that the care they provide is sensitive to different culture preferences.

“It's very similar to what we do with cultural diversity and cultural inclusion and understanding the differences by culture, just slicing it a different way and looking at it by generation,” Lemay noted. “We need to know what the different generation expects and how they define things to make sure that we're communicating in a way that makes sense to patients.”

READ MORE: Patient Engagement Strategies for Young, Healthy Populations

Once providers understand the preferences of different generations in their population, organization leaders can make adjustments to ensure a positive patient experience for all age groups. For example, different generational expectations for hospital wait time can help providers target systems to different patient needs.

“Younger generations have a different allowance for what they consider a reasonable wait time,” Lemay reported. “Younger generations have less patience for waiting two weeks or three weeks to see a doctor. They'd rather drive extra, so they spend an hour on the road to see a doctor tomorrow instead of wait three weeks to see a doctor locally.”

In contrast, older patients might get frustrated waiting on the phone for a while to obtain an appointment, or sitting in a waiting room with no explanation for the delay.

These insights can help hospitals better design workflows. Creating call center efficiency will create a better appointment scheduling experience for older patients. Making more same-day appointments available on online tools and other avenues by which younger patients book appointments could also be useful.

There is a litany of other preferences different generations might develop, and they might vary depending upon a certain patient population’s needs. However, each of these preferences adds up to an essential factor: brand loyalty.

READ MORE: The 3 Building Blocks Supporting Patient Engagement Strategies

“This gets into the brand loyalty, and we can see a generational difference in loyalty to a provider and loyalty to an institution when you look at it between generations,” Lemay said.

Hospital brand loyalty might be a harder sell to younger generations, who are willing to switch around providers until their specific need is met, Lemay said. This means organizations need to be nimbler.

“Don’t run your brand loyalty programs as you always have,” Lemay suggested. “Really think about who is your patient population? What are they looking for? And how can you address that?”

Lemay also cautioned against prescribing to some generational difference myths. Older patient resistance to health technology is a trap that providers easily fall into, and one that industry professionals should do away with.

“We do need to consider generational differences when it comes to technology and the things that we implement,” Lemay said. “But, we also need to broaden our stereotype. From data and different research articles, the span across generations is much wider than one would expect when it comes to comfort with technology. Whether it comes to online equipment scheduling or communication with providers over an electronic portal.”

“When you look at the spread of different generations, people are surprised to find the older generations are much more comfortable with technology than we give them credit for and actually sometimes prefer that technology,” Lemay added.

For younger patients, organizations need to look at cutting edge technologies that integrate seamlessly into patient lives, Lemay said.

Of course, there are some baseline commonalities between patient generations that should establish a baseline of patient-provider relationships. Treating patients with dignity and truly listening to patients will always be essential, regardless of patient age.

“No matter what the generation, patients want to be validated, and they want to felt heard,” Lemay concluded. “Again, it comes back to understanding what it means for that patient to feel heard. But, empathy will never change between generations.”

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