Say Aaaah, boomer!
The first wave of Gen Z doctors are picking up their stethoscopes and scalpels. (They’re also prioritizing mental wellness, acknowledging health disparities and leveraging lifelong digital literacy to revolutionize the next era of medicine.)
The idea of Generation Z delivering babies or performing a craniotomy is admittedly meme-worthy.
A cursory scroll through popular apps like TikTok or Instagram displays countless parody videos portraying Gen Z doctors mixing medical jargon with current slang. A clip posted by content creator and medical student William Illiano in May 2022 depicts an oncologist sitting down with a patient to discuss the results of a recent CT scan. He begins by saying, “I’m not gonna cap with you, broski. There were some masses that were lookin’ mad sus.” He ends the video by describing a biopsy for the removal of “Non-Hodgkey lymphoma” and “benign adenomizzles” as a “super lowkey proceej.”
The reality is that some of the oldest members of Gen Z (defined by Pew Research Center as those born between 1996 and 2012) are currently in their last year of medical school or are already licensed doctors in their first year of residency. It’s a moderately mind-blowing notion for the rest of us, who know Gen Zers for their independence, authenticity and expert technological know-how but also for their TikTok slap-fights, expectations of instant gratification and relaxed work ethic.
But those are just perceptions. We do have objective data about the new generation of doctors who will make up 30 percent of the workforce one decade from now, treating our children’s allergies and ridding our bodies of tumors. For one, they’re diverse – the most culturally varied and gender-equality-focused generation yet. They’re also the first generation of doctors in 100 years who trained during a worldwide pandemic.
Perhaps most critically, Gen Z is also the first generation oblivious to a world without the internet. Known as “digital natives,” they’re comfortable and confident using technology to solve problems, keep up with current events and stay in touch with their community. According to Pew Research Center, 95 percent of Gen Z has a smartphone and 97 percent use at least one major social media platform.
A slew of stereotypes has stemmed from Gen Z’s tech savviness, including the belief that it has led to underdeveloped social and communication skills. “In my experience and what I’ve observed, our generation has really used technology as a way to communicate and stay connected and use that to our advantage,” says Dr. Megan Sluga, a first-year OB/GYN resident at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix.
Sluga, now 26, grew up in north Peoria and says she was just 2 years old when she first told her parents she wanted to pursue a path in medicine. Communicating candidly about their wants and needs comes easily to Gen Z, says Dr. Sarah Lam, a 25-year-old first-year neurology resident at Barrow Neurological Institute. “We’re a very outspoken generation,” she says. “That’s benefitted me in a lot of ways because it’s important to speak up in medicine and ask questions.”
Though this post-Millennial cohort often gets a bad rap for being too reliant on technology or reluctant to engage in face-to-face interaction, 25-year-old Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine student Leith Ghani says versatility is Gen Z’s superpower. “My friends and I would much rather be in person hanging out with each other, but when it’s easier to shoot a text, we’re still capable of doing that as well,” he says.
Ghani emphasizes the importance of forming solid friendships throughout medical school. “When we do get some free time, my friends and I get together and play cards,” he says. “Throughout this process, you’re able to create really good relationships. It’s a hard process, but I think what helps us get through is just having each other.”
The importance of balancing success and self-care is another oft-cited Gen Z trait – but is it one that’s meaningful to medical residents, with their famously sleep-deprived, 80-hour work weeks? For what it’s worth, the Gen Zers interviewed by PHOENIX say they’re acutely aware of the dangers and risk factors of burnout, and are determined to avoid the 63 percent physician burnout rate cited by the American Medical Association in 2021-2022.
Sluga spends her days off with her husband, who is pursuing a career in behavioral health, by hiking, camping or kayaking. “We’re big outdoors people, so any chance we get, we’re outside,” she says. “Spending a lot of time outside for me is very refreshing and helps me kind of reset after working inside all day.”
Despite its brutal summers, the Valley appears to be a prized destination for burnout-leery residents. As a Missouri native, Lam was drawn to the Valley’s abundant sunshine, famed hiking trails and flourishing food scene. “Phoenix has really helped me,” she says. “I can enjoy the weather all year round, so that has really contributed to my wellness.”
It’s the Grand Canyon State’s novelty that comforts Lam, but Ghani seeks solace in its familiarity. The aspiring D.O. grew up in Phoenix and went to the University of Arizona for undergrad. Back in the Valley, he says quality time with friends and living near his parents helps with his mental health. “I value family time a lot, and it’s such a nice thing to be able to live near home,” he says.
The generation’s emphasis on the importance of human connection has also helped move the needle on a more “person-centered” care model – a fashionable concept in medicine which obliges physicians to listen to each patient and build a personalized treatment plan around their preferences and priorities. Though doctors dedicate more than a decade of their lives to mastering the science, techniques and technology of medicine, Ghani says nurturing relationships with patients and ensuring they feel educated and validated is a vital soft skill. “I think a lot of time in medicine, the patients have the answers, it’s just being able to ask the right questions or that they’re comfortable answering your questions,”he says.
This is especially true when treating patients of different races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations. The current body of U.S. medical students – dominated by Gen Z – is larger and more diverse than any preceding class (see sidebar). According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the number of Black matriculants increased by 9 percent and Hispanic matriculants increased by 4 percent between the last two years, and women made up 57 percent of all applicants.
“We know that more diversity in the physician workforce builds trust and enhances the physician-patient relationship, translating into better health outcomes,” AAMC president and CEO David J. Skorton said in a 2022 press release.
But a recent GoodRX Research study determined that 80 percent of counties across the United States still lack proper access to services needed to maintain health. Here is where Gen Z’s aptitude with technology – and telemedicine, specifically –may prove perfectly aligned with the nation’s medical needs. Telemedicine allows inhabitants of these “health-care deserts” – and those facing additional barriers such as low income and lack of insurance – access to health education and resources. With their ingrained socioeconomic sensitivities and awareness of disparity and privilege, Gen Z is the ideal fit.
At the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, students have the opportunity to take a longitudinal course called Health Care Delivery. Developed in 2017, this experiential course allows a new generation of physicians to experience firsthand the issues that patients may face outside the clinical setting. “What happens when they go home and they can’t afford the prescription you provided, or they can’t make it to their next appointment because they don’t have transportation?” says 26-year-old Kerri McInnis-Smith, who is studying ophthalmology. “Mayo sends us out to different community organizations, and we have to take public transportation and do all these things to get to an appointment at Thunderbird and get back to our house… knowing that there’s more that happens in our patients’ lives beyond the doors of our clinic.”
Harris Liou, a 26-year-old aspiring radiologist, says his time at Mayo has taught him that making a difference in the health-care system goes beyond treating patients at the hospital. “We have to advocate for patients in the community as a whole,” he says.
These social determinants of health were amplified during the pandemic, during which cumulative data revealed that minority groups experienced higher rates of illness and death.
Sluga says the fact that she and her peers are training in the pandemic era is “the single most influential factor that is going to result in our generation’s unique approach to medicine.” Gen Z doctors have not trained in a hospital outside of the new COVID reality, which Sluga says taught her a very specific set of skills in a short time.
“I started medical training when hospitals were shut down, and the only people who were allowed in and out were necessary frontline workers and patients, so visitors weren’t allowed at bedside. I watched patients endure entire hospital stays alone, and I was involved daily [in] calling their families and spending hours on the phone trying to communicate updates because they weren’t allowed in the hospital,” she says. “That drove home how there’s really no substitute for that face-to-face connection when practicing the art of medicine… We learned how to have the difficult conversations early on in our medical training because of that.”
The pandemic forced many Gen Z medical students to take a hard look at their own health as well. Gen Z tends to be more vocal about its emotional wellness than previous generations, reporting higher rates of anxiety and depression and expecting its workplace to prioritize, discuss and even provide mental-health resources to its employees. According to a recent Harmony Healthcare IT survey, 42 percent of Generation Z has a diagnosed mental-health condition.
“You wouldn’t want physicians who are going through mental health crises or being overworked or underslept treating or operating on patients,” Liou points out. “So, health-care education is taking the initiative to make sure that physicians or trainees have adequate sleep and adequate mental-health resources partially, and most importantly, for the sake of patient safety.”
Sluga says Gen Z is often portrayed as having a poor work ethic, a cliché she is quick to disprove. “It’s not that we’re not working as hard, it’s that in many cases, we’re able to do the same work in a more timely and efficient manner because of the way we can use technology to help with that,” she explains. “This generation values work-life balance more than past generations, so previous generations view that as lazy, whereas really there’s just stronger emphasis on personal wellness and the generation in general is quicker to speak up for themselves.”
McInnis, who has a 1-year-old son and is currently expecting twins, says work-life balance looks different for everyone. “Some days it’s all work, and some days it’s all life, and it will work itself out in the end,” she says. “Just the fact that there’s more acceptance of what your work-life balance looks like and there’s more stress on the importance of it is great.”
Current courses of study in U.S. medical schools also focus on how to apply skills cultivated in the classroom into real-world scenarios instead of memorization strategies. “As a result, Gen Z places less emphasis on the curriculum and more on how to critically evaluate the world around us,” explains 26-year-old Dr. Siddhartha Srivastava, who started his neurosurgery residency at Barrow Neurological Institute last summer.
Gen Z M.D. Diversity Vital Signs
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That critical thinking can come in handy when filtering through the digital feeds that permeate Gen Z culture. Social media platforms can help raise awareness and decrease stigmas around certain conditions, but doctors warn against the dangers of self-diagnosis and rampant misinformation. “I think social media is a double-edged sword,” Ghani says. “We really have to be looking into our sources and verifying the information, but there are medical providers that do have good knowledge and are able to articulate messages quicker so the public can consume it pretty easily.”
Gen Z is also the first medical generation wholly versed in the concept of “shared decision-making” – an industry response to the public perception of monolithic, unfeeling corporate health-care systems that treat patients like numbers and don’t listen to their needs or address their concerns. It includes discussing treatment options with each patient and letting them feel like they have control over their own care. This doesn’t look like the patient dictating what treatments they want or the doctor making executive decisions based on their own biases, but a balanced outcome that best benefits the patient.
“Ultimately, we’re here for the patient… and the patient knows themselves best,” Lam says. “We have to trust what they say and trust our training and our knowledge to help treat these patients the best that we can.”
As previous generations continue to retire, and more young doctors come into practice, the health-care landscape will continue to shift.
“Health care is going the direction of personalized medicine, shared decision-making and just really having an acute awareness of how our patients interact in their daily lives outside of the clinic,” says 25-year-old Nicole De La Pena, who will graduate from the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine this spring. While the neurology student says technology will be much more integrated into medicine in the future, it will be centered around the patient and their individual needs, preferences and circumstances.
As for the humorous, hyperbolic portrayals of her peers on video-sharing apps, De La Pena points out it’s not purely negative and goes back to her generation’s prioritization of personalized care. “Using slang is obviously not appropriate for everybody, but there are certain patients where, if you really meet them where they are and how they want to be communicated with, it can really benefit their care,” she says.