Generation Z and implications for medical education

Many Baby Boomers have been quick to point out that 2024 is not 1968. When students occupied buildings at Columbia University 56 years ago, at least their objectives were clear – to put an end to the Vietnam War. Do students today who have camped out at Columbia, and a multitude of universities across the U.S. and disrupted graduation ceremonies want to end the war between Israel and Hamas, or are they advocating for antisemitic policies and the destruction of Israel?

Student protestors need much more clarity about their goals. They seem to have forgotten that the war started after the Hamas-led attack on Israel killed some 1200 people, most of them civilians. Perhaps they do not understand that you can be an ally to Palestinians while continuing to advocate for peace, security, and self-determination without dehumanizing or stereotyping Israelis and Jews. Likewise, it is possible to be an ally to Israelis while continuing to advocate for peace, security, and self-determination without dehumanizing or stereotyping Palestinians, Muslims, and Arabs.

The differences between ethnicities and races and, equally important, between generations – the Baby Boomers and Generation Z – extend far beyond politics and ideology. Most college students and many graduate students are Gen Zers – individuals born between 1997 and the early 2010s (there is some debate as to where to place the cutoff – 2010, 2011, or 2012). Many will not be able to remember a time before smartphones and social media; hence, Gen Zers have also been dubbed the iGeneration. (Generation Alpha, born between the early 2010s and 2024, is the first to fully access technological advancements.)

Generation Z makes up a fifth of the U.S. population. It is the most diverse generation in history in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Environmental, social, and governance practices with a focus on sustainability and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are critically important to this generation, colloquially known as “Zoomers.” Gen Z individuals undoubtedly bring unique challenges and opportunities to the domain of education and medical education in particular.

As digital natives, Gen Z students have an inherent understanding of technology, using it for learning, information gathering, and communication from a young age. This familiarity with technology suggests that traditional lecture-based teaching may not be as effective. Instead, a shift towards more interactive, technology-driven educational methods, such as online platforms, virtual simulations, and digital anatomy tools, may be required.

Research shows that Generation Z’s attention span is considerably shorter than that of their predecessors – even compared to goldfish – possibly due to their regular interaction with quick, concise information through social media and other digital platforms. These findings imply that medical education may need to adopt more engaging, brief, and interactive teaching methods.

Generation Z tends to be visual learners, preferring images, videos, and infographics over traditional text-heavy materials. Medical educators should consider incorporating visual aids and multimedia resources to enhance learning retention and comprehension.

Authenticity and transparency in all matters, especially education, are highly valued by Gen Zers. They seek real-world relevance in their learning experiences. Medical educators should emphasize the practical application of knowledge, provide opportunities for clinical exposure and hands-on skills training, and foster open communication and collaboration between students and faculty.

Because Generation Z is the most diverse generation yet, a strong emphasis on inclusivity and social justice is welcomed in the teaching curriculum. Medical education should reflect this diversity and promote cultural competence, empathy, and awareness of social determinants of health to prepare future health care professionals to serve diverse patient populations effectively.

Generation Z is entrepreneurial and values creativity, innovation, and autonomy. Medical education can encourage entrepreneurial thinking by integrating courses on health care innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership skills development, empowering students to drive positive change in health care delivery and research. Medical schools should strive to build partnerships with humanities and business departments in their parent universities and incorporate selective courses to complement basic science classes.

Generation Z students place a high value on personalization and expect their educational experiences to be tailored to their individual interests and career aspirations. This desire for customization further challenges the traditional structure and standardization of medical education. Therefore, medical schools might need to consider more flexible curricula and individualized learning pathways. The importance of extracurricular and community-building activities cannot be understated.

Another notable characteristic of Generation Z is their higher levels of stress and anxiety compared to previous generations. Factors such as academic pressure, social media use, and contemporary global uncertainties could contribute to these mental health issues. Indeed, the unsettling war in the Middle East is perhaps a harbinger of the way future ethnic conflicts will play out and is all the more reason to make mental health resources available to students.

The stark reality, however, is that Generation Z has already faced stressors such as 9/11, school shootings, climate change, and a global pandemic. Thus, they are more open about mental health issues and seek support to address mental well-being. Medical education should prioritize the promotion of student wellness, resilience, and self-care practices, while also providing education on mental health assessment, intervention, and de-stigmatization.

As the Israel-Hamas war has demonstrated, growing up in a connected world means Generation Z has taken on a global perspective and special interest in global health issues. Medical education should, therefore, incorporate global health perspectives, cultural competency training, and opportunities for international experiences to prepare students for the realities of practicing medicine in an interconnected world. Residency programs should prepare doctors for locum tenens assignments to fill staffing gaps in underserved and war-torn areas.

As important as politics is to today’s current events, the debates and events that will ultimately shape Generation Z are likely yet to be known. What does seem clear, however, is that significant educational adjustments are required to meet the unique challenges of this generation as they consider a career in medicine. These can also be seen as opportunities for innovation and progress.

In summary, adapting medical education to meet the needs and preferences of Generation Z requires innovative approaches that leverage technology, active learning strategies, visual content, authenticity, diversity, and inclusion. By recognizing and responding to the learning preferences and needs of Generation Z, medical schools can enhance their educational curricula and better equip future physicians for the evolving health care landscape. However, if the issues leading to career dissatisfaction among current physicians are not resolved, it may be difficult to attract and retain the top performers from Generation Z.

Arthur Lazarus is a former Doximity Fellow, a member of the editorial board of the American Association for Physician Leadership, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of several books on narrative medicine, including Medicine on Fire: A Narrative Travelogue and Narrative Medicine: Harnessing the Power of Storytelling through Essays.

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