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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ja-Nae Duane

The Virtual Doctor is In

Doctor speaking with a patient in a virtual environment
Image generated by Revolution Factory using MidJourney

Telehealth is one of many innovations that grew out of the COVID pandemic. The need for social distancing and the rise of work-from-home culture saw a huge increase in online shopping, telecommunication (who can forget all those Zoom meetings!), and delivery services.

This global shift has had ripple effects throughout our society, including how patients and doctors interact with each other. In this new space, you may have had consults or appointments with clinicians via a telehealth portal.

Prior research tells us that the familiar settings of our homes make us more comfortable and secure, inviting more disclosure while also empowering us. There is a distinct shift in the dynamic when we are no longer speaking in an uncomfortable exam room or across a desk from our doctor.

Although we may gain in empowerment, we stand to lose connection in our interactions across a virtual space. Non-verbal cues from our doctors - things like eye contact, hand gestures, and facial expressions - matter much more when we can’t rely on in-person interaction. Technical snafus like a poor connection, bad lighting or audio can negatively impact our experiences.

However, as telehealth is still an emerging field, there isn’t much research on how these encounters actually impact patient experience. Our Virtual Communications Research (VCR) Lab wanted to add empirically-based research to patient perceptions of the telehealth experience.

We posed two main questions. Will the perception of a telehealth session:

  1. Increase the likelihood the patient will book another appointment.

  2. Increase the likelihood they will recall clinical information shared during their visit.

We recruited close to a thousand participants, asking them to imagine themselves at a scheduled telehealth appointment, where they would receive information from a practicing physician. We then questioned them on three key areas: their satisfaction with the doctor, their impression with the doctor’s overall communication, and their immersion with the experience.

Finally, we asked how likely our participants were to re-book, quizzed them on the information given during the session, and asked them to rate their level of comfort with telehealth.

On the likelihood our patient would rebook, we found comfort with the doctor and the doctor’s ability to communicate clearly were significant factors in determining whether a patient would rebook. On the likelihood patients would retain information shared during the visit, we found satisfaction with the session and a sense of immersion in the experience led to better recall of information.

As is true in many areas where sensitive or important information is conveyed, the analog art of communication is key. Our findings point to a direct link between patients’ satisfaction, retention of information and the communication skills of the physician.

What does this mean for you as a patient? How can we ensure better or improve on existing communication between you and your doctor? We suggest clinicians include summaries of relevant information in the open note section of patient charts. We also encourage “teach back” opportunities and support the introduction of visual or illustrated items to further clarify what was covered in a session.

Telehealth is not a passing fad; it is here to stay. As patients become more savvy and telehealth portals become more sophisticated, it will become all the more important for us to examine the role of physicians as both traditional caregivers and informers. There is also a vital role for UX designers to include communication-friendly infrastructure in the design of telehealth portals. Lastly, we cannot diminish the role of the patients themselves as both users of this new technology and active participants in their online health.

Technology will continue to change and evolve to meet global demands. While this can seem a daunting prospect, especially when it comes to something as intimate as our healthcare, it’s comforting to know that the simple art of good communication can bridge the gap and ensure there will always be an irreplaceable value to human connection in the future.

Telehealth is here to stay, so let's embrace the future of healthcare together.

To learn more about how telehealth impacts the relationship between doctors and patients, check out this link for further research. If you have any questions or need more information, feel free to contact me and my team.

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