The internet is often the first place many of us go to find information, whether it’s about hotels, music, or furniture. And health guidance is no exception — especially among millennials.
A new survey of 2040 millennials (ages 23 to 39) in February by Harmony Healthcare IT found that 69% of respondents searched online for health and medical advice instead of going to the doctor, and a quarter of respondents trust Google to accurately diagnose their symptoms. Also, a strong majority (83%) are doing their own research, even after hearing advice from their doctor, and 42% trust their own research more than that of their doctor.
“This seems to be a common thread with millennials turning to online resources to self-diagnose symptoms or conduct research on an ailment they might have,” Collin Czarnecki, a researcher for the Harmony Healthcare IT survey, told WebMD.
Providing Reliable Online Resources
Harmony Healthcare IT did a similar survey of millennials in 2019.
“As a data management firm working with hospitals across the country, we wanted to look at millennials, a demographic that many hospital groups are working with, and we decided to look at millennials again this year to see what changes the pandemic might have brought about,” Czarnecki said.
Turning to the internet for medical advice hasn’t changed much since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, although the 2019 survey found a slightly higher percentage (73%) of millennials going online for medical guidance, but “that number remained pretty much on par,” he said.
WebMD was the most consulted online site. It was used by 71% of respondents, followed by news articles (27%), YouTube (26%), health apps (23%), FamilyDoctor.org (18%), Reddit (18%), and Everyday Health (16%).
“It was really interesting to see that people are consulting Reddit,” Czarnecki said. “This has been a big resource for researching stocks, but it seems that people are using it for health advice as well.”
Amir Lerman, MD, director of the Chest Pain and Coronary Physiology Clinic in the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, told WebMD that these results have an important take-home message for healthcare providers.
“Consulting the internet for medical advice isn’t going away and is part of a democratization of resources,” said Lerman, a professor of medicine whose research found that a large number of people were searching online to learn about their heart symptoms, thus potentially delaying life-saving medical care.
“As physicians, we need to be sure that we provide the right online sources for patients to consult and they’re reliable and not commercially or professionally biased,” he emphasized.
Millennials Prefer Telemedicine
Despite the heavy use of the internet for medical guidance, 79% of the millennials surveyed said they have a primary care doctor — up 3 percentage points from 2019. In fact, of these, more than a quarter (28%) established a new relationship with a primary care doctor during the pandemic.
On the other hand, the percentage of millennials who received a physical exam (65%) within the past year remained unchanged from 2019.
Czarnecki suggested the higher number of primary care visits might be explained by the use of telemedicine, which has mushroomed since the start of the pandemic.
“We found that close to half — 41% — of respondents said they would prefer to see the doctor virtually, which falls in line with the convenience that telehealth is creating for patients,” he said. The fact that more people were home because of pandemic-related social distancing restrictions also increased the time that people might have had to visit the doctor.
“Being able to talk to your doctor through a video platform, communicate with the doctor through a healthcare portal, and schedule an appointment likely played a role in the greater comfort millennials had in scheduling a follow-up appointment,” Czarnecki said.
Lerman thinks there will be more virtual interactions, even after the pandemic. He said they can make face-to-face appointments “professional and efficient.”
“Some of the work can be done prior to the appointment through increasing digital health platforms and applications,” he said. For example, “we are working on doing some of the cardiac workup at home by using devices that can transmit some of the patient’s information ahead of time.”
The convenience of telehealth has also made it more popular. And a virtual appointment can also lay the groundwork for an in-person visit, since the doctor and patient will have already reviewed issues together and can jointly decide the time and nature of the in-person visit.
The Impact of Financial Insecurity
Concerns about potential job loss or being furloughed may have played a role in the increased visits to primary care doctors. “With potential job loss looming over their heads, they want to make sure they received a checkup in case of a worst-case scenario of losing employer-based healthcare,” Czarnecki hypothesized.
Although more millennials have seen a primary care doctor, as many as 43% reported ignoring a health issue, and 33% said they ignored it for more than a year. A similar percentage had not had a checkup since the beginning of the pandemic. The most common reason was COVID-19 safety concerns, but more than a third did not go for a physical exam because they felt it was too expensive.
“Pandemic-related economic factors have played a huge role in how millennials relate to their healthcare,” Czarnecki noted.
Indeed, close to a quarter (24%) of respondents reported taking on new medical debt since the beginning of the pandemic, with 28% reporting an increase of more than $1,000.
“Some of the non-face-to-face interactions are being covered by insurance, and I think that this will grow. There is pressure to cover visits and tests because they save time and money,” said Lerman.
Many Millennials Don’t Want to Get Vaccinated
Vaccination is a hot-button topic among Americans in general, and millennials are no exception. Only a little over half (55%) of respondents said they would get a COVID-19 vaccination, a quarter said they would not, and a fifth weren’t sure.
“Millennials who said they won’t get the vaccine were more likely to not have a primary care physician and also more likely to get their medical advice online, rather than through a medical professional,” Czarnecki said.
“Our data shows that millennials have a heavy reliance on the internet for medical information and disinformation, and that is potentially impacting their opinion on whether or not they should receive the vaccine,” he said.
As compared to women, a larger percentage of men were willing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine (51% vs 60%, respectively).
Czarnecki speculated that women may be more reluctant to be vaccinated than men because recent CDC data shows that women are reporting worse side effects and more allergic reactions, compared to men.
Another factor is that millennial women in particular may have “major concerns regarding the potential impact of a vaccine on pregnancy and breastfeeding,” Lerman suggested.
COVID-19 has changed the face of healthcare for all Americans, and millennials are no exception. “Overall, it’s important to look on the positive side of the trends our survey found, especially the importance of telehealth,” Czarnecki said.
“Physicians should make sure that there is ease of use of the technologies that facilitate patient-doctor interactions and that it is as seamless and convenient as possible for them to schedule and hold future appointments,” he said.
Harmony Healthcare IT plans to continue surveying millennials to see if these trends continue, as healthcare evolves after the pandemic.