Bringing in the boomers: Potential growth for health market

While the boomer generation has long been considered an important demographic for marketers of products and services, experts say physicians also stand to gain by targeting the boomer patient.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted May 7, 2007

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No other generation has been studied, surveyed and monitored like the baby boomers when it comes to finding out where and on what they spend money.

And research has found the health care industry has the largest potential for growth as baby boomers continually search for products and services that will make them look and feel young.

But where does this quest to find the proverbial fountain of youth leave the primary care physician? Some will argue that, due to the sheer size of the boomer generation and the declining number of primary care physicians, there will never be a shortage of boomer patients. Plus, with much of a practice's revenue dependent on insurance and Medicare reimbursement, some question whether it's worth the money to do marketing.

Nevertheless, Kenneth Bollin, MD, a family physician with the St. John Family Medical Center in St. Clair Shores, Mich., said the boomers are an important generation that physicians need to accommodate. "If they weren't different from any other generation, there wouldn't be as much talk about them."

Changes made to accommodate the boomer patients are ones that future generations will come to expect, Dr. Bollin said. This generation grew up with the technology age, and much of the discussion between doctors and patients is fueled by outside media. If physicians can maintain their role as the source of trusted information and provide a convenient, patient-centered experience, doctors will certainly benefit, he added.

What boomers want

Health and wellness trends consultant Steven French, managing partner of the Natural Marketing Institute in Harleysville, Pa., has made a career of studying baby boomers and their buying habits. He agrees that it's in a doctor's best interest to keep the boomers happy.

For starters, it costs less to retain a patient compared to the cost of bringing in a new one, French said. But more opportunities abound for physicians willing to invest the time and energy into creating a boomer-friendly practice, he said.

The first step in understanding what boomers want is understanding what type of boomer you are dealing with, according to French.

Mary Furlong, president and CEO of Mary Furlong and Associates, a Lafayette, Calif.-based public relations and marketing firm for the boomer market, said the boomer generation is not only the largest in history but also the most diverse.

The National Marketing Institute breaks the boomers down into five segments: arrivers, strivers, bewildered, worriers and Peter Pans. Knowing what defines each segment can help physicians better treat their patients, experts say.

"While some are looking for a doctor to give them the quick fix, others want to find ways to reverse conditions by lifestyle changes or supplements, etc.," said Linda Fisher, PhD, research director for the National Member Research Knowledge Management division of the AARP.

For example, arrivers understand the connection between lifestyle and health and are willing to pay for preventive solutions. The bewildered are those most reliant on prescriptions. If a condition can be reversed through either a change in diet, or with pills, the arrivers would be most apt to make a change in diet while the bewildered would want a prescription instead, French said.

Even though there are stark differences in the five boomer segments, some generalities can be applied to the entire generation. The most notable is the boomers' Internet usage and their desire to want better communication with their physicians. And the two, experts say, go hand in hand.

Dr. Bollin said patients, like never before, are coming in armed with information they want to discuss. Boomers like to take charge of their own health, and they no longer take a doctor's word at face value. The normal 15-minute exam time does not cut it anymore, he said.

One change many practices are making, he said, is adding ancillary staff, such as dieticians and wellness coaches. Because patients can access information from so many sources today, the physician's office should be the place where patients can sort it all out, Dr. Bollin said. But since physicians see too many patients in a day to spend extra time with each one, extra staff can help patients keep the doctor's office as their primary source of information.

Furlong said she realizes small practices may not have the resources to hire additional staff, so an option could be an information wall inside the practice that offers brochures, pamphlets and books on a variety of topics.

Counting on doctors

In his experience with boomers, Coyle Connolly, DO, has found the generation to be a hardworking group of people who don't mind spending money on products and services they believe in. The generation is also the first to disregard the notion that they have to look their age. Subsequently, boomers have fueled much of the growth of the medical spa industry.

Dr. Connolly expanded his general dermatology practice in Linwood, N.J., six years ago to include a stand-alone medispa. "Everyone is targeting this group because of their expendable income and their large number."

In 2006, research by Focalyst, a joint venture between AARP and the research group Kantar, found that 61% of boomers, who were then between the ages of 42 and 60, said they find information from their doctors concerning products and services very valuable, while only 5% said the same about magazine ads.

NMI's research found that 72% of boomers tend to be brand-loyal when it comes to products and services. Doctors are finding the loyalty extends to their physicians, as well.

Because boomers don't like being told what to do, they want to spend extra time with their doctors discussing information they found on their own, Furlong said. What she hears from boomers about their doctors is, "Why aren't they listening to me? When I go to the doctor's office, why does he only take 15 minutes?"

"I think all doctors should have a dashboard of services," Furlong said. They could start small with e-mail consultations, or even an e-newsletter or blog to help patients feel connected.

A big potential is diet and exercise, Furlong said. While getting in shape is a goal of many boomers, "weight loss at this age is like chipping concrete," she said. Tips on weight loss and working out are big sellers in the boomer market.

Rowena Sobczyk, MD, a family physician in Atlanta, finds that because boomers are researching more online, it's harder for physicians to write a prescription and assume it will be filled. More patients seek non-medicinal treatments after learning of possible side effects of drugs, or alternatives that are cheaper than a prescription.

"Boomers are researching and understanding everything in medicine is not black and white," Dr. Sobczyk said. "Practicing medicine has become an art, not a science."

Dr. Bollin found a potential for boomer growth in the area of convenience. Because boomers are working longer, they require more accessible hours from doctors. "Just like retail stores have to stay open nights and weekends, so does the doctor's office," Dr. Bollin said. Extended hours are even more important as the number of in-store clinics continues to rise.

The key to adapting to the boomer revolution, experts say, is to stay in tune to what they are seeking. "There seems to be a close relationship between a sense of control and their satisfaction," Fisher said.

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Boomer breakdown

Five distinct type of boomers were identified:

Bewildered (17%): This segment is the least well-off financially, and also the least likely to have health insurance. They don't take responsibility for their own health but rely on others and prescription medication. They are looking for control and direction but are least likely to follow a doctor's advice.

Peter Pans (19%): A male-skewed group that shares values of much younger cohorts and does not want to be associated with boomer stereotypes. They are generally healthy, tend to have the highest debt, and not concerned with planning for future health or financial needs. This segment is the least likely to see potential value in personal health records.

Strivers (19%): A youthful-oriented segment that is active and healthy. They are brand-loyal and seek trendy products and services, such as dietary supplements. They are well on their way to achieving their goals, are the most likely to try new products and services and the most likely to tell family and friends about them. This segment is also the most likely to see the value of personal health records.

Worriers (22%): A female-skewed group that fears poverty even though they're generally not poor. They take responsibility for their own health, but 89% fear the future will bring a major illness that will destroy their financial security. They want proven brands and services that are affordable and offer peace of mind.

Arrivers (23%): This segment understands the connection between lifestyle and healthy aging. They are the most financially prepared and are seeking products that enhance self-direction and independence.

Source: The Natural Marketing Institute

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The ethics of selling to boomers

Experts say physicians could profit handsomely from the baby boomers by finding certain health-related products to endorse and sell.

Boomer marketing expert Mary Furlong said boomers look to their physicians for advice when it comes to such products, so selling a trusted brand in-house could prove to be lucrative for physicians.

But official policy of the American Medical Association states that the sale of medical-related products presents a financial conflict that threatens to erode patient trust. Physicians who choose to sell products should not sell those that have not been scientifically studied or proven.

They also must take steps to minimize their risk of financial conflicts of interest. They should disclose to patients their financial arrangements with the manufacturers, as well as refuse to sell any product made available only through physician offices.

The AMA recommends that physicians sell only those health-related products that serve a pressing or immediate need for their patients. An example is selling crutches to a patient with a broken leg who otherwise would need to drive to a pharmacy.

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