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At 1 a.m., your toddler stands crying by your bed, tugging at her ear. It’s the witching hour for medical decisions, a time when the emergency room was once the only option.  But as a tech-savvy parent, you pop a tool called Oto onto your smart phone. In a moment you’ve taken a video inside your child’s ear. By 3 a.m., a doctor’s report tells you it’s safe to wait for morning.
Once a futurist’s fantasy, home diagnostic tools like Oto now bring data to bear on behalf of patients, and offer cost savings that can slow rising healthcare costs without fanfare or political turmoil. A new healthcare model is emerging to replace one that long revolved around the doctor’s office. Consumer demand and entrepreneurial drive are bringing us advances like 24-hour immediate care centers and even in-home robotic attendants are bringing.
Although cost containment is a big cause of the shift, much of the energy behind it is coming from a new generation. The millennials, increasingly the dominant adult generation, expect an Amazon/Google/Twitter-style response to everything. That means they want vast amounts of useful information so they can make decisions that get them care at the lowest cost and with the least friction. The effectiveness of their communication will determine which players in the healthcare industry will rise and fall, as will their ability to offer relatable science and guideposts that point toward options for care.
It’s a stark contrast to the generations who came before. For the Greatest Generation, raised when modern medicine was just developing, the physician/healer was key. Ben Casey was the miracle-worker brain surgeon, and Marcus Welby, M.D. the genial father-figure with a stethoscope. Baby boomers, by contrast, never experienced a world without antibiotics, vaccines, and birth control, and became the first patient/consumers who challenged physician authority and required more information, respect, and autonomy.
Medicine is now governed largely by information, like so many services once regarded as specialized and labor intensive. With the right data, hardware, and applications, patients can access up-to-date science and treatment recommendations that match the standard of care historically devised by experts. Much of this innovation is under development now.
The real power in this new successful medical enterprise will belong to the communicators who receive inquiries, gather information, and respond effectively.  It’s no surprise that Amazon, first and foremost an information company, now operates a research and development team dedicated to new healthcare initiatives.
Amazon’s project was only recently reported. But this team, code-named 1482, is studying ways to tap trillions of existing medical records to facilitate online consultations with doctors and other healthcare providers. Amazon increasingly has the necessary hardware place in the form of its voice-powered Echo and dot devices, already in millions of homes. And it is rapidly expanding into the pharmacy business. How hard would it be for the tech giant to provide seamless service from symptoms, to prescriptions, to treatment?
For Amazon and its competitors, including Google and Microsoft, the first target market will be younger and middle-aged adults making decisions for themselves, their children and, increasingly, their aging parents. Generation X is the entrepreneurial generation that created search engines and e-commerce. Their self-reliance grew out of need. Born when divorce rates were skyrocketing, many were latchkey kids of single parents. They spent a lot of time with their new personal computers. Once they recognize the power of technology, they quickly incorporate it into their routines.
Today, millennials are 75 million strong. Last year, they took over from baby boomers as the largest population cohort. They’re particularly worried about healthcare costs, because they typically owe many thousands in student debt. They’re suspicious about financial advice. They’re constantly on the lookout for affordable alternatives.
While many see millennials as the most entitled generation, surveys show they’re among the most anxious ever. They were in elementary and middle school when terrorism rocked and shocked America. They’re not sure who they can trust, and thus try whenever possible to make decisions for themselves. However, the volume of medical information and advice now available can be paralyzing. They want tech partners to guide them through the maze.
The winners in the race to provide healthcare information, guidance and, ultimately, products and services, will become everyday resources for these new customers/patients. These will be enormously valuable commercial relationships because for Gen X and Millennials, health is far more than lack of illness. They care too, deeply and often knowledgeably, about mental health, stress, anxiety, sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
Some companies have already arisen that exemplify the new opportunity. Oscar reinvented health insurance based on millennial-customer insights. It simplified the purchase, provided 24-7 access to medical professionals, and created a whole new healthcare experience for their customers. And Parsley Health’s founder Dr. Robin Berzin, a Columbia University-trained physician, has created an offering that promises to redefine medical care. It addresses the needs of the whole person, combining tech with ready access to physicians trained in functional medicine. Patients sign up for a membership that brings full access to this personalized care, including full primary care services and nutrition, lifestyle, and fitness counseling. (Hospitalization and out-of-network referrals are not included.)
Today’s young and middle-aged adults consider peers to be more trustworthy than professionals or industry. They use Facebook, YouTube, and Google. Facebook alone has some 70 million members receiving health information in some fashion, and there are hundreds of thousands of Facebook groups focused on health (more than 250,000 for cancer alone). And myriad online communities, like the and, enable consumers to tell their stories and share experiences of coping with illness. One out of every 20 Google searches is health related.
Doctors, hospitals, clinics and other healthcare providers who want to continue to offer care will have to meet patients where they live, which is, increasingly, online.
For those who look at this future and feel threatened with obsolescence, the best response is to join the conversation with patients who crave data and help them use it to make decisions.
Lynn O’Connor Vos is the CEO of greyhealth group.