Utilizing Digital Health to Engage the Young Adult

There has been a lot of discussion in the industry surrounding the benefits of digital health and ways to improve access for senior and underserved populations. However, when we look at the young adult population, we know they are digitally connected and well-versed in all things tech. 85 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 are smartphone owners and 15 percent of this age group are “heavily dependent on a smartphone for online access.” Yet, when it comes to young adults and their utilization of technology for health purposes–or even their relationship to healthcare in general–things get a bit murky.

As a rule, young adults manage their health less traditionally than their Gen X or Boomer counterparts. “Millennials, the generation between the ages of 18 and 34, do not visit doctors the way other age groups typically do,” according to the International Business Times. Furthermore, “Not only do they forgo health care in favor of other priorities, when they do need medical attention, they turn to Google and WebMD before visiting actual doctors, whom they are less like to visit repeatedly or regularly.”

Many remain undecided on coverage as well, despite a big push by the Obama administration that encouraged young adults to get covered under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The transition to adult coverage can be bumpy; health plans are confusing and outreach from insurance companies targeting young adults is often misguided. However, this trend to buck coverage is not ideal for our health system or for young adults who may not understand the value of developing and sustaining relationships with physicians, even if they are healthy now. 

Where the Barriers Exist  

Younger Americans have an organic connection to technology. They use it to stay connected with family and friends, and it’s how they get their news and share information. Given this relationship, well-designed digital health tools can be used as a draw to help young adults better manage their health, becoming more engaged in the process.

Millions of young adults gained health coverage through the ACA, yet this population still has noticeably higher uninsured rates than other age groups. Coined the “young invincibles” many adults under 35 don’t see the point of investing in insurance when they are young and healthy and leading markedly healthier lifestyles than previous generations.

For the rare health hiccup, research shows that millennials favor retail clinics, urgent care clinics or even ERs for nonemergency care. This is a habit which concerns Dr. Karen Soren, director of adolescent medicine at New York Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital and an associate professor at Columbia University Medical Center. “Some of us in the [medical] profession are a little worried about that. We feel it’s critical that they have a relationship with a healthcare professional who can follow them over time,” says Dr. Soren.

Today’s young American leans toward solving health issues independently of a physician compared to an older adult or someone living with a chronic illness who requires more consistent interaction with a provider to stay healthy. One survey found, 28 percent of millennials self-diagnose before seeing a doctor and 36 percent self-treat at home.

Time and financial constraints factor into these decisions and are very real concerns for today’s young adult. Many are paying off large student loans, living in cities where the cost of living is exorbitant, working part-time or as a contractor prohibiting them from receiving coverage through an employer, or lack the flexibility to take time off work to see a doctor.

But we’re seeing more and more that managing health from the start is critical for prolonged health and wellness. One study found that young people who neglected mental and physical health problems as adolescents faced an elevated risk of leading an unhealthy life as an adult.

Digital Health’s Promising Reach

As with engaging any demographic, creating smart, well-designed digital health tools, tailored to address the concerns and needs of today’s young adult population, have the potential to be hugely impactful. Mobile devices, text messaging, wearables, social media, are among the resources that young adults utilize daily and can in turn, provide effective platforms for providers and insurers to educate and reach individuals on relevant health issues.

Technology can also break down many of the barriers prohibiting young adults from becoming more proactive participants in their own health. Digital tools designed specifically to help young adults navigate and access the complex world of health insurance would go a long way. Apps and wearables that make it seamless to access and manage health information and communicate with physicians are also of interest to millennials.

What exactly are young adults looking for from healthcare providers and innovators? One survey found:

  • 73% of millennials are interested in their doctors using mobile devices during appointments to share information and 71% of millennials would be interested in a doctor giving them a mobile app to actively manage their well-being for preventative care, to review health records and schedule appointments.
  • 63% of millennials would be interested in proactively providing their health data from wearable devices to their doctor so they can monitor their well-being.
  • 60% of millennials are interested in using telehealth options such as video chat with a doctor to avoid a doctor visit.

Clearly it isn’t that young adults don’t want to be proactive about their health but rather are interested in participating and investing in a system that incorporates and understands their values, unique lifestyles and needs. It appears we aren’t there yet. Calling a doctor’s office to schedule an appointment about a persistent sore throat and then leaving work for two hours to see the physician isn’t feasible or desirable for this demographic.

Young adults with serious health issues, such as a chronic illnesses that requires regular monitoring and interaction with a clinician, would also largely benefit from digital tools that enable self-management through a variety of digital channels.

Innovators need to create a digital health experience that can meet this population of young adults where they are. Additionally, providers who are able to integrate well-designed digital health tools into their practices and interaction with patients, will have a big opportunity to transform the way young adults approach their own health care—empowering a whole new generation of patients to take ownership over their health and pave the way for a healthier future.