Worried that telehealth will change your relationship with your patients? If so, you’re probably thinking of a recent patient visit. I’m guessing it went like this. As the patient sat on your exam table and described their symptoms, you listened carefully and maintained eye contact so they knew you were paying attention. You used the right physical cues to indicate you took their complaint seriously and were committed to helping them feel better. The patient began to trust your clinical ability; you developed a sense of personal connection. But when you picture trying to have that conversation over a screen? You worry the connection will go cold – and the patient’s outcomes might suffer.
This exact scenario haunts many physicians. Caught between two concerns – one of losing patients to telehealth apps and the other to depersonalized virtual visits – providers are afraid to move forward with virtual health adoption and attracted by it at the same time.
If that’s you, the following real-life feedback from providers might help you make a decision.
Deeper connection and honesty in the provider and patient relationship
During the pandemic, many providers transitioned to virtual visits for the first time. Some worried they’d lose any rapport established with existing patients; some patients were skeptical they could truly open up to a clinician through a screen. To their surprise, many patients found they were able to be more honest about their issues and lifestyle than ever before. Some reported that having visits in their own home, rather than a medical practice that was clearly the provider’s territory, helped “level the playing field” and helped them feel more natural and confident. Providers noticed their patients came to appointments in better moods since they didn’t have to fight traffic and hunt for parking spots.
Both providers and patients reported developing greater personal bonds. Patients might see a cat climbing into their physician’s lap in their home office, spot familiar titles on their bookshelves, or encounter a toddler running into the room. These new dynamics often provided some moments of humor and a greater ability to humanize each other beyond “sick patient” and “medical authority” – developing relationships where patients felt more able to confide in their providers.
Penetrating Patient Insights
Providers anticipating the limits of telemedicine were surprised by something else – its ability to illuminate the limits of in-person visits. In a traditional exam room, providers have one source of truth about their patients: patient accounts. But a virtual visit conducted from the patient’s home exposes truths providers have never had access to before.
Physicians might spot a kitchen full of salty chips and junk food when treating a patient with hypertension; a nurse practitioner might review a medication cabinet with an elderly patient to see if she has to squint to read the prescription bottle or if any medications are missing because she can’t afford them. Pediatricians can get a better view of a child’s family environment to better understand their social determinants of health and call in other resources as needed.
Bridging Gaps in Care
One of the most horrific aspects of the pandemic was the isolation of dying patients. With families barred from hospital intensive care units, many patients passed away without a loved one by their side. Many nurses used mobile devices to connect patients to their families – which has now expanded into a variety of new practices. Parents can video chat with their hospitalized child when they can’t be there in person; adult children can join an elderly parent’s specialist visit to better capture the recommendations and share their own observations. Providers are more involved with their patients’ families than ever before and embracing the fact that telehealth can change the relationship with their patients.
By helping people connect in lockdown, providers also realized how to better reach both new and existing patients. Telemedicine opened a door to community outreach and consistent communication with their patients, such as checking on them after surgery. Providers could also arrange real-time virtual consultations with specialists, tightening collaboration with their patients’ other providers.
At the same time, healthcare staff in rural areas can now expand their clinical skills by attending virtual professional development classes – further increasing the medical expertise available to patients far from big hospital networks. Instead of referring their own patients out of their office, these providers are increasingly able to treat them in their practice and keep them in the community.
Deeper Connections: Telehealth Changes Relationship with Patients
While providers new to telehealth may be uncertain about the personal impact, the above feedback shows just how many positive changes it can bring. It’s worth remembering that telehealth usually augments in-person visits – providers can control the balance between the two or bring a patient back into the office whenever they feel it makes clinical sense to do so. With so many upsides, there’s every reason to explore virtual visits. Chances are that telehealth will change your relationship with your patients – for the better.