Making telemedicine more human

Laura Cooley
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Laura Cooley, senior director of education and outreach at the Academy of Communication in Healthcare, dishes out tips to improve the telehealth experience at the Patient Experience Summit this morning.

Laura Cooley, senior director of education and outreach at the Academy of Communication in Healthcare, has seen how the patient experience is being transformed by technology firsthand.

When she went to schedule her annual women’s health exam, she found a digital platform that could help her find a clinician that fit her needs, took her insurance, and had the calendar dates she wanted. It also let her see reports of other patients’ experiences and book online.

“So, I was very happy to quickly and easily find someone, find a calendar appointment, schedule that and enter all my information. It was an excellent patient experience from a technology perspective,” Cooley said during the Patient Experience Summit, put on by the Cleveland Clinic and HIMSS.

When she got to the clinic that positive experience took a turn for the worst. As a patient, she said she felt like her doctor was rushed, and felt they had very little rapport. She had a health question that she felt was dismissed by the doctor.

“What was concerning was that my technology experience was much better than my human patient experience,” Cooley said. “When I left that appointment, I definitely was not a satisfied patient, and I would not recommend 'Dr. O.' I would recommend the technology platform I used to book with 'Dr. O.'

"Part of my hope for the future is to use this story as an example to say, I think healthcare can leverage technology and digital tools like the one I used to book 'Dr. O.' and try to free up some time and energy for clinicians who I know mean well … but are feeling so crunched by time and clinic flow they are not making the connection in the human encounter, so that both my technology and my patient experience in the clinic were positive reports.”

Cooley said she doesn’t see technology taking over for a doctor, but rather helping clinicians do their jobs more effectively.

“There’s lots of ways that technology could be leveraged in the healthcare space and there’s a little bit of worry when we think about things like artificial intelligence. The idea of having robots as our healthcare providers is the future we have to imagine if support technology. I actually like to think of AI and other technologies as our assistance in healthcare, so we can see more humanistic healthcare because of these tools,” she said.

Tech could combat clinician burnout, she noted. Electronic health records have long been caused complaint among doctors and patients, and have been blamed for dehumanizing the clinician-patient experience, she said. One solution to this is voice-recognition software. This kind of software can record the visit and transcribe the conversation. She said this can cut down on the amount of typing clinicians have to do and curb time spent on administrative tasks.

This isn’t the only place where technology is changing the way care is delivered. Telemedicine has been on the rise. This is especially true in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic has forced patients to stay at home. The switch to a virtual environment can be difficult for patients and providers alike.

“There’s this inability to be in the same room together. So physical touch, the physical examination is certainly something that may feel a bit lost in the human part of that healthcare encounter,” she said. “One of the other things that I think is difficult is that it is so easy to be distracted in the technology space.

"There could be an email popping up, there could be an instant message from a colleague popping up all kinds of other things to divert our attention. Some of my colleagues who have been practicing telehealth this year pointed out it's easy to jump into the diagnostic part of the conversation rather than building some rapport, rather than starting with a warm and friendly encounter like you might in person.”

Cooley has come up with five tips on how to make that telemedicine visit a bit more human. The first is being present. She notes that it is important to start with a warm greeting to build the relationship. Next is identifying the needs of the patients or colleagues you are talking to. One way she said clinicians could do this is by asking what is on their minds.

The third element is listening to a patient. She said that it’s important not to interrupt and to identify nonverbal cues. Building on that is responding with empathy. Here she noted that it is important to show a patient that you care about them and what they are saying.

The last tip is sharing information with a patient. One way she suggests doing this is asking the patient to reflect back on what information was shared during the visit. This can help the clinician check to see if the information was conveyed correctly and can give the clinician a spot to add information if needed.

“What we imagine is there is a certain loss to the human element because there is a screen between us. We may not have the benefit of a video,” she said. “Telehealth has now become much more utilized tool, so we have to live with it. I think it can actually improve both patient and clinician experience across the board if we find ways to make sure it stays human.”

Making telemedicine more human