By George Kramb
When the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person access to medical care, telehealth filled the gap. Telehealth platforms proved to be a viable solution to providing ongoing care during a historic health crisis by giving patients a portal to connect remotely with doctors and other healthcare professionals.
As the pandemic has lingered, telehealth has become the norm for many patients. And as the novelty has worn off, patients’ expectations for receiving quality care via telehealth have grown. This has left healthcare providers with the task of ensuring that telehealth platforms and the interactions that they facilitate have a high level of sensitivity to patients’ needs.
Facilitating communication via virtual care
It should come as no surprise that patients expect to be able to effectively communicate with doctors and medical staff during a virtual visit. They expect their virtual appointment to allow for the same exchange of information that an in-person appointment allows. In most cases, this will require more effort on the part of the medical team and use of a platform that anticipates the challenges of online communication.
Anyone who has sat in a Zoom meeting knows that communicating remotely is more challenging than communicating face-to-face. Body language, which is a huge part of communication, all but disappears when we sit in front of a screen. Non-verbal cues are also more difficult to detect, especially when our video connection is less than optimal.
Addressing these concerns requires a sensitive approach to engagement that involves both well-engineered technology and well-trained medical staff. For example, body language plays a big role in communicating when one person is done speaking and another can comment. Those cues are far more difficult to pick up on in an online meeting. For the doctor or nurse, this means framing conversation in a way that invites engagement and making sure that adequate time is provided for patients to process and respond.
Some telehealth platforms facilitate an exchange of information by empowering participants to “raise a hand” when they have a question or a comment. Those who have used Zoom will be familiar with this tool. Those using a platform with that functionality should draw the patient’s attention to it and allow them to become familiar with it during the early phases of the appointment. Such measures show a sensitivity to the patient’s need to ask questions, confirm that they understand information that is being shared, and participate in developing a course of action.
Addressing technology during virtual care
While virtual meetings have become standard for a large part of the culture, that does not guarantee that every patient is familiar with that format and the technology that drives it. In the age of telehealth, being sensitive to client’s needs means being sensitive to their level of comfort with technology.
Addressing the possibility of technical challenges could simply involve the healthcare team taking time to acknowledge the technology, allow the patient to ask questions about the technology, and stay calm and supportive should technical issues arise. From a platform perspective, addressing this issue means not skimping on software. Utilizing a robust system that anticipates users’ friction points is a sure way to be sensitive to a patient’s needs.
Ironically, a recent study reveals that the age bracket that is often thought of as most comfortable with technology – 18 to 34 years of age — reports being the least satisfied with their telehealth experiences. A key complaint expressed by those in that age group was that care providers did not show adequate concern for questions or worries and did not provide adequate explanations of problems or conditions. Healthcare professionals should be sensitive to the fact that those who are most often online expect a higher degree of excellence in facilitating online experiences.
Providing security during virtual care
A report issued in late 2021 revealed that more than half of global healthcare providers have refused telehealth services over concerns about privacy and data safety. The report also revealed that more than half of telehealth providers have conducted appointments with software not designed for medical security, such as FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Zoom.
Data security and privacy is a major concern in our digital era and an issue about which patients are highly sensitive. The majority of platforms designed for telehealth provide a level of security for meetings and messaging that is HIPAA compliant. Healthcare providers that have yet to upgrade should seriously consider taking that step.
Those that are using platforms designed for security should educate patients on those features and what they mean for virtual care both to encourage virtual appointments and to increase the effectiveness of those appointments. Another study on telehealth revealed that concerns about the security on online platforms has a negative impact on the trust that patients extend to their caregivers, which could lead to doctors being unable to obtain complete and accurate information about their patients. Addressing a patient’s sensitivity toward security should be a primary goal for telehealth platforms and providers.
Being sensitive to a patient’s needs has always been a top concern for healthcare professionals. The challenge they now face is translating their in-person systems and practices to models that address the concerns of the online patient.
– George Kramb is the Co-Founder and CEO of PatientPartner, a health technology platform that is creating a new type of patient experience for those going through surgery. After spending years in operating rooms alongside doctors ensuring medical devices were utilized properly, George saw a need for greater support, education, and compassion for patients who were going through stressful medical experiences. He founded PatientPartner to help connect patients with one another through a community of empathy and support.
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