How can tech help health care target Gen Y?

Generation Y consumers do everything from shop to socialize with their smartphones; is it really any wonder that they feel disconnected from analog-era health-care services?

A recent survey from ZocDoc and Harris Interactive found that digitally-savvy Gen Y adults (those between the ages of 18 and 34) think health care is so frustrating that more than half said they delay medical care because the process is a “pain.” The study also found that 79 percent said it’s easier to evaluate a new gadget than a new doctor or dentist and 76 percent said it’s easier to find the right information to choose a hotel than it is to find an appropriate doctor or dentist.

The big takeaway from the survey was clearly that New York-based ZocDoc – which tries to make picking a doctor as easy as picking a restaurant on OpenTable or Yelp – is addressing a problem for Generation Y. (And, of course, that vendor-commissioned surveys are likely to produce results that the vendor will like.) But while ZocDoc is arguably the largest and best known health care startup helping Millenial patients, it’s starting to gain some company.

“I feel like we’re at this moment where there’s a lot of momentum,” said Unity Stoakes, co-founder and president of Startup Health, a health tech academy and incubator in New York. “There’s a palpable sense that a lot of young innovators have a strong desire to disrupt the [health care] sector.”

In the past four months, he said, Startup Health has received about 600 applications from entrepreneurs with ideas on how to use technology to transform how patients, physicians and other health-care professionals receive and provide care. About a third of the entrepreneurs are Gen Yers themselves, who were often motivated by frustrating experiences of their own.  Care Dojo, for example, is a mobile health company still in stealth mode that was founded by 18-year-old Harvard dropout Faheem Zaman after his father went through a troubling health situation.

Regardless of whether emerging health tech companies are founded by members of Generation Y, Stoakes said innovation in the sector is reflecting the technological trends that are growing with the demographic.

One major trend: mobile innovation. According to a February study from Nielsen, Generation Y consumers (who are so digitally connected that the research firm has taken to calling them Generation C) comprise 23 percent of the U.S. population, but represent 33 percent of Americans who own tablets and 39 percent of the population that owns a smartphone.

Playing to that trend, Force Therapeutics, a Startup Health-sponsored startup, helps patients and physical therapists easily schedule appointments via tablets and smartphones.

Using game mechanics to motivate people to make slight changes in their behavior is another common strategy among emerging health tech companies, Stokes said. DailyFeats, another Startup Health startup, rewards users with real-world prizes (such as eBay and Barnes & Noble gift cards) when they complete small actions from doing the laundry and cleaning to taking their calcium supplements and exercising.

Other startups, such as Meddik and Symcat, which are backed by New York health tech accelerator Blueprint Health, provide familiar-looking search engines that help diagnose conditions or provide relevant health care information.

The industry hasn’t seen a Facebook-sized disruptor, Stoakes observed, but ZocDoc is paving the way for entrepreneurs hoping to bring Web innovations to health care. Consumer applications, such as the Nike Fuel band fitness tracker and iPhone-based fitness apps, are also likely spurring interest in the sector and Facebook’s recent organ donor initiative will only bring more attention to the field.

Stoakes said he’s seeing strong interest from corporations, universities and health institutions eager to partner with (and potentially acquire) companies on the leading edge. But, despite the positive momentum and free-flowing capital, new startups still have hurdles to overcome.

“The real challenge is connecting the dots and helping these startups get customers,” Stoakes said. “We’re starting to see these corporate partners pay attention and get involved and dip their toes in the water. But what we’d really like to see is more of these corporate partners support entrepreneurs in pilot programs and investments and become customers of the startups.”