Social media has changed the way we do everything, including finding out about health problems. Millennials, in particular, often turn to Facebook and Instagram for advice on how to deal with their symptoms or what might be wrong with them.
The internet is most people's first stop when looking for information - whether it's hotels, music, furniture, etc., but especially so if you're a millennial who uses social media like Twitter and Facebook as your go-to resource for anything related to healthcare.
A new study of 2,040 millennials in February by Harmony Healthcare IT found that 69% of respondents over the age of 23 would rather search medical and health advice online, as opposed to going to the doctor. Furthermore, a quarter of millennials said they trust Google more than their doctors to provide accurate information about health-related issues.
"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.
According to a 2019 study, about 73% of millennials looked online for medical guidance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic; however, this number remained pretty much on par with past surveys.
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."
Ami Lerman, MD, Director of Chest Pain and Coronary Physiology Clinic in the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, discussed related information with WebMD.
"Consulting the internet for medical advice isn't going away and is part of a democratization of resources," said Lerman, whose research found that a large number of people are searching online to try and figure out what might be causing their heart symptoms potentially delaying life-saving treatment.
"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.
Telemedicine Preferred by Millennials
Seventy-nine percent of millennials surveyed said they have a primary care doctor. In fact, of these, more than a quarter (28%) established a new relationship with a primary care doctor during the pandemic. However, the percentage of millennials who receive a physical exam within the past year (65%) remained unchanged from 2019.
Telemedicine could be contributing to a greater number of primary care visits, suggested Czarnecki.
"Being able to talk to your doctor through a video platform, communicate with the doctor through a health care portal, and schedule an appointment likely played a role in the greater comfort millennials had in scheduling a follow-up appointment," Czarnecki said.
"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. Because of pandemic-related social distancing restrictions, people might possibly have had more time to see their doctor because there may have been fewer patients.
The advent of telehealth has made it easier for patients to access their healthcare through the internet. A virtual appointment can 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.
Now, in the wake of the pandemic, patients are more comfortable with virtual interaction. Lerman believes this trend will continue. "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 workups at home by using devices that can transmit some of the patient's information ahead of time." A virtual visit prior to a face-to-face visit can make the entire process "professional and efficient."
The Impact of Financial Insecurity
The increasing number of visits to primary care doctors may have partly been due to worries about losing jobs or being furloughed. "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 health care," Czarnecki hypothesized.
Despite more millennials seeing a primary 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 seen a doctor 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 health care," Czarnecki noted.
Many respondents report having suffered new medical debt after the recent pandemic, with more than a quarter (28%) reporting using up more than $1,000 for this debt.
"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
Millennials have different opinions about vaccination than previous generations, but many are in the middle of a heated debate on this issue. Only half of the respondents were willing to get the COVID-19 vaccination, and a quarter wouldn't even consider it. Most folks weren't sure what they would do, indicating complete indecision.
"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.
Though men and women express similar levels of interest in the COVID-19 vaccine, a larger percentage of men were willing to receive it (51% vs. 60%, respectively).
Czarnecki speculated that women might be more reluctant to be vaccinated than men because recent data from the CDC shows that women are reporting more severe symptoms and allergic reactions in higher percentages.
Another factor that is known to affect a woman's decision-making process about the vaccine is her age. This isn't unique to millennial women, but young mothers, in particular, may have concerns about "the potential impact of a vaccine on pregnancy and breastfeeding," Lerman suggested.
"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," said Czarnecki.
COVID-19 has changed the face of health care for all Americans, and millennials are no exception. Today millennials are leading the way in fighting back against chronic diseases from obesity to heart disease, among other things. Millennials have embraced change as a means to make healthier choices, and much legislation has been passed with their help. "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.