The Secret to Getting Young Men to Go to the Doctor

This piece appeared in The Wall Street Journal on March 3, 2017.


How do you get young, healthy people to the doctor? We know engagement with a primary-care provider can play an important role in building healthy habits and preventing chronic disease, not to mention promoting early detection of critical illness. But we also know that young people – young men, in particular – are reluctant to go to the doctor. The bottom line, however, is that although young people may feel invincible, even the fittest among them can be vulnerable.

In recent years, some have suggested that telemedicine – remote medical consultation by phone or video conference – could be the key to reaching this patient population. But most telemedicine applications suffer a design focused primarily on episodic use, not allowing for the development of the ongoing doctor-patient relationship that’s so important to building a healthy life.

In 2015, Stanford introduced a new model designed to marry the convenience of telemedicine with a relationship-building approach. Patients enrolled in the program, known as ClickWell Care, can choose the way they interact with providers. Do these patients prefer the convenience of a phone or video consultation, or are they looking for the intimacy of an in-person visit? The program also gives patients access to wellness coaches, certified trainers, and stress reduction exercises, all via phone or video call.

This flexibility is proving to be very popular with ClickWell Care patients. Overall, a majority of patients in the program prefer an in-person appointment for their first physician visit, but then opt for phone or video when it’s time for a follow-up. This would seem to create a best-of-both phenomenon, using the face-to-face interaction to initiate a meaningful relationship that can then be accessed conveniently when needed. Interestingly, patients aged 65+ are more inclined to see their physician virtually for new visits, reminding us that the desire to access new technologies spans all age ranges.

But the audience that showed the most striking result was the one that’s been hardest for physicians to reach: young men, who traditionally avoid doctors. It’s only natural for healthy young adults to feel the sense of invulnerability that has led some in the healthcare world to refer to them as the “young invincibles.” Convenience is undoubtedly a factor as well: when you’re trying to make your start in the world, dealing with the bureaucracy of appointments, billing and insurance may not be worth the effort.

Whatever the reason for telemedicine’s positive reception among young men, the facts don’t lie. In a recent study by ClickWell Care co-creators Sumbul Desai and Lauren Cheung, men were more likely than women to receive all of their care virtually – a finding that may affect how we engage with and deliver care to men going forward. Women, in turn, were more likely to choose a mix of virtual/in-person or in-person-only care.

As we move toward a future of more personalized, preventive care, the potential of telemedicine lies in its promise of choice. That’s a vision of health care we should all be aiming for.