People taking their mental health into their own hands via the use of psychedelics. Recent college graduates entering the workforce without ever stepping foot in an office. Individuals who make investment decisions based on Reddit. 

These newly emerging populations represent the forces that are shaping the future of health today, and healthcare organizations that pay attention to these new pivotal groups will stay relevant in a post-pandemic world.

These new populations are best exemplified by the archetypal personas I met Monday at an interactive event in Chicago. The event, titled Inspiration Experience: Renaissance 2022,” took place Monday at the Oliver Wyman’s Health Innovation Summit. Billed as an “immersive experience,” it was more an interactive event that featured presentations from actors and members of Oliver Wyman’s health and life sciences team.

The event summarized Oliver Wyman’s consumer research and explored four major trends that will play critical roles in accelerating digitization within major industries such as healthcare, technology, science, technology, manufacturing and education. The presentations also introduced new names for emerging consumer and employee populations, such as “digital bloomers” and “citizens of the metaverse.”

To conduct the research that informed the interactive event, Oliver Wyman surveyed more than 100,000 respondents across nine countries from August 2020 to December 2021. The countries were the U.S., U.K., Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain, France and China.

Dr. Who? Dr. Me

In this section, we met three characters who embodied the country’s changing health behaviors. The first was Ruchir, a young man using ketamine therapy to treat his depression. After years of unsuccessful treatments — including SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and transcranial magnetic stimulation — he began the psychedelic therapy and is finally seeing progress for his condition.

Though his mental health is improving, he is plagued with endless back-and-forths with his health plan, begging it to cover his treatment given it is the only thing that is working for him. It is doubly frustrating for him given the therapy has been proven to be effective. He is also bothered by the fact that ketamine therapy was not widely available at mental health facilities. 

Next, we met Hannah, an expecting mother who is on her way to meet with her doula. This is Hannah’s first pregnancy, and she knows she needs a doula to help guide her through the emotional and oftentimes overwhelming process of preparing for childbirth. She is grateful that she is able to afford the doula, but expresses resentment and confusion as to why her insurer didn’t cover the services. Research proves that expectant mothers who are matched with a doula have better birth outcomes — Hannah felt like her health plan didn’t prioritize her best interest of her child’s health. 

Jay, the final character, is an athlete focused on optimizing his physical performance. He is willing to try every new and existing technology available to strengthen the full spectrum of his wellbeing. However, he said that when he brought up sleep tracking technology and the other wearables that he used to understand his health to his physician, she was dismissive of his efforts to learn from his health data. 

Each of these characters represents a society that is becoming more educated and aware of “alternative” therapies and ways to measure their health. They demonstrate a frustration that more and more patients are feeling: Why should I listen to my doctor when they don’t even know all of my options? The presentation recommended that healthcare companies respond to these consumer trends by keeping their operating models up to date as new research and care delivery breakthroughs continue to emerge.

Influencers over Institutions

As exemplified by Ruchir, Hannah and Jay, patients have more health information at their fingertips than ever before. Oliver Wyman’s research revealed that people gather the bulk of this information through the Internet. It also found that distrust in experts and corporate organizations is at a high. Rather than turning to institutions, people prefer to get their information — whether it be health advice, political guidance or briefings on current events — from influencers and friends on social media, according to Oliver Wyman’s health and life sciences team.

Investors are not immune to this trend as exemplified in the concept of the “hivemind investor,” a persona representing those whose investment decisions are driven by social media. This character entered mainstream consciousness in January 2021, when the “WallStreetBets” subreddit rallied around stocks that traditional investors on Wall Street had expected to do poorly, such as Gamestop and AMC. Oliver Wyman’s research showed that this community-based approach to investing is unlikely to go away soon, so startups and companies preparing for their IPOs should be aware of this trend.

I also met the “specter of disinformation” as part of the experience. I did this by looking into a mirror — it was meant to reveal the skeptic that lives inside all of us. The presentation reminded me that in a world in which we curate our own information from the vastness of the Internet, it’s imperative that we be discerning when consuming news online. 

I was shown various TikToks and Instagram reels in which users spouted their expertise on disease outbreaks and health maintenance. Some of these videos were more outlandish than others — such as the one that argued raw milk is the only healthy coffee additive — but they all contained health information that was questionable and unvetted. It was then revealed that the accounts I was watching all had more followers than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More Instagram followers, that is — so far the CDC doesn’t even have a TikTok account.

People are more likely to trust information when it is delivered by someone they can relate to, the research showed. For a growing number of people, a TikToker uploading content from their home is much more relatable than Anthony Fauci delivering information in a suit. This is a prime area where healthcare companies need to innovate — they are still struggling to handle disinformation and its effects on their customers, Oliver Wyman’s presenters said.

Mobilizing the Metaverse  

Just like social media isn’t going away, neither are digital modes of care delivery. In this session, I learned about two distinct groups: digital bloomers and citizens of the metaverse. 

Digital bloomers are people, mainly those over age 45, who entered the digital ecosystem because of the pandemic. Until then, they did things the analog way and saw no reason to change. Now, this group is becoming increasingly willing to digitize necessities, such as their healthcare interactions, banking and grocery shopping, the research revealed.

The presentation suggested that healthcare companies need to capitalize on this newly emerged group by scaling up their digital offerings and focusing on convenience for the end user. This becomes even more imperative when we think about reaching citizens of the metaverse, a term which refers to people who are willing to participate in a wholly virtual world without hesitation. 

As more and more people become comfortable with the metaverse, healthcare companies have the opportunity to tailor their products and services toward the convergence of virtual and physical reality. This could be as simple as offering more telehealth visits, or as complex as creating virtual reality experiences for physical therapy. During the interactive portion of this session, I was given the chance to take part in various VR experiences, such as a physical therapy session in which patients slash virtual balloons with virtual swords to help regain muscle strength.

The Great Renegotiation

In addition to new consumer preferences, healthcare companies also need to start adapting to new types of employees that have entered the workforce over the past couple years. For example, the workforce has seen an influx of workers who are virtual natives, meaning they graduated during the pandemic and have since taken jobs where they work almost exclusively remotely. 

Without knowing it, this group of young people have reinvented what a white collar job can look like. Many prefer remote work, enjoying the fact that they rarely have to leave the comfort of their homes and pets. Others are unsure whether they enjoy it, finding it strange to have never met your boss in person, according to the research. 

This group has a complicated relationship with returning to the office. In the survey, 87% said they do (or would) enjoy going to the office, and 86% said they would quit or look for another job if they were required to return to the office full-time. As a 2020 graduate and virtual native myself, I can attest to this — my peers and I have mixed feelings on remote work. Conducting more research to understand this population’s unique wants and needs will help healthcare companies discover ways to improve white-collar retention and build employee loyalty, the presentation recommended.

Another employee group that has emerged during the pandemic is blue collar workers who taught themselves new skills that helped them land a white collar job. As these workers shift to white collar positions and blue collar baby boomers continue to retire, the blue collar labor shortage is being exacerbated, according to the research. This will force healthcare companies to fully embrace automation and figure out how humans and machines can best work alongside each other.

During this presentation, I saw two actors have a conversation as Gen Z employees. They worked as call center employees at a regional health plan, and they were on their lunch break. The women talked about remote work concerns and how they were unsure how to advocate for better pay. One of these characters also said she “didn’t even understand” which benefits her employer was offering, claiming that the company needed to do a better job of educating her about them.

From these bemused young workers to hivemind investors to psychedelic explorers, all of these new personas are worth healthcare companies’ attention, according to Oliver Wyman’s presenters. Successful healthcare companies must continually reassess their strategies to keep up with these changing consumer and employee preferences — or they may fall behind.

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Most major technological trends develop behind the scenes for a long time. Then, at some point, a larger-than-life personality pushes things into more of a mainstream focus. Steve Jobs did it with iPads. Elon Musk is doing it with EVs. That’s why, when Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s rebrand to Meta, the world sat up and paid attention.

With a big name and a historic brand behind the metaverse, mass adoption is already accelerating. There was an immediate response from tech companies like Sandbox, which launched Sandbox Alpha — its official metaverse product — shortly after Zuckerberg’s announcement, and the doors were officially blown the movement.

Related: What’s Behind Facebook’s Rebranding? It Depends Who You Ask.

Here are three ways this suddenly relevant technology will impact the business community going forward.

1. Challenges will appear early and often

For users, the metaverse represents fun experiences and even the potential to earn financial rewards. For businesses, the metaverse as it now stands will require heavy investment and a shift in numerous modes of business.

The payout could be astronomical over time, but that doesn’t change the fact that most businesses are currently in a costly pioneering stage when it comes to the metaverse. While some of these concerns will go away over time, other challenges could remain significant for quite a while.

Jeff Wong, the Global Chief Innovation Officer at Ernst & Young is well aware of the major concerns of the metaverse, but sees it as an inevitable next step in the tech world we inhabit. The tech innovator points out that in the process of building the metaverse, early adopters will need to prepare to face the challenges of cost, regulation, supply and security. 

For instance, establishing financial infrastructure and new commerce experiences open up opportunities for fraud. Hackers will be a threat at every turn. Identity theft is already a big enough issue in the real world. Its presence in the metaverse could be much harder to manage. 

In addition, governance will be a hot-button issue. Jurisdiction can be difficult as international companies attempt to sign contracts and agreements in a digital-only space. This could lead to disagreements between various governments as they sort out things like content control and legal rights.

None of these have to be deal-breakers, according to Wong. However, they are all hurdles that businesses will need to surmount in the coming months and years, in much the same manner as they already have with the internet.

2. The need to invest will grow

It’s tempting for a business to see the new metaverse as a massive opportunity for easy money. After all, you don’t need to break ground on a building or invest in renting a physical space. But that doesn’t mean the metaverse will be a small investment. On the contrary, while users may be able to have free access, the threshold for businesses to “pay to play” may be much higher.

Case in point: fintech. Financial services have already begun to move toward the metaverse. Multiple firms have begun scooping up metaverse real estate in the hopes of using it to interact with a new digital audience in the future. One of these pioneering companies is Prager Metis International LLC. The New York City firm has offices across three continents, and yet still felt compelled to acquire space on the Decentraland metaverse platform.

Prager Metis’ new meta office is exciting and full of potential, but that doesn’t mean it was free. The firm dropped a sizeable $35,000 dollars on the three-story digital space. While every investment won’t be as big as Prager Metis’, it goes to show just how substantial investing in the metaverse can be for businesses who are serious about the opportunity.

3. Blockchain and cryptocurrency will become necessities

The rapid-paced growth of cryptocurrency has already felt like a roller coaster ride for many investors. And yet, it’s a pretty safe bet that the announcement of the metaverse will only keep this chaotic-yet-profitable situation rolling.

The metaverse is a digital landscape. Thus, the most natural form of currency will be digital currency. Blockchain-based cryptocurrencies are poised to answer that need with aplomb. Both existing digital tender and countless future iterations have the potential to become the driving engine behind financial interactions in the metaverse.

For businesses great and small that want to participate, this means buying into the crypto craze. It doesn’t require a full-scale commitment to the exclusion of everything else. However, it’s hard to argue with the idea that businesses that are comfortable with crypto — and blockchain as a whole — are positioning themselves to thrive in a new digital-only environment.

Related: It’s Time to Learn About Cryptocurrency and Bitcoin

The potential of the metaverse is out of this world. Businesses should be ready to invest as soon as possible as consumers begin interacting with the metaverse. However, the impact that the metaverse has on businesses won’t be all sunshine and roses. For those who are willing to put in the work and resources, the rewards will come, but that likely won’t happen until after a period of intense change.

As businesses prepare for the impact of the metaverse, they should remain open-minded and ready to adapt. This includes investing in digital real estate, adopting crypto and remaining flexible and resourceful as brands face both seen and unforeseen challenges. If a company can do these things, they can avoid the adverse effects and both survive and thrive in the new digital era ahead of us.

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