Telemedicine and Patient Experience

Post Written by ATA18 Connector Matthew Anderson, MD

Video-based telemedicine is being adopted by healthcare institutions, physicians and advanced practitioners at a significant pace.  The technological shift is driven by the ease and convenience of use as well as opportunities to improve access and decrease cost.  There are new useful tools that improve the telemedicine experience, allowing physicians to listen to a patient’s heart and lung, check blood pressure and even look inside someone’s ear from a great distance away while connected electronically.  No one can predict what might be on the horizon for telemedicine.

As we focus on the technology that allows us as physicians and advanced practitioners to provide telemedicine, we must not forget the patient experience.  With attribution to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, we should focus less on what will change and ask what will not change.  What will not change about the patient experience in a video-based telemedicine encounter compared to an in-office encounter?  What will be true about what a patient wants today and in the future, regardless of whether that visit takes place in real-space or cyber-space?  There are several key points about the patient experience to remember.

Distracted Doctoring: Patients want to be the center of their physician’s attention when they seek medical care.  They want to know that their provider is there for them and allowing them to tell their story.  My own patients will let me know, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, when they think I am looking at my computer more than them.  All healthcare providers can fall into that trap of reviewing the chart and starting their documentation while trying to listen to their patient.  This is no different for telemedicine video visits.  Focusing on the “second screen” with an EMR, a telemedicine provider can seem just as distracted.  Multitasking with your patient lessens the patient experience online and in person.

Quality Medicine: No matter the venue – a medical practice office, hospital or virtually from home, all patients seeking care just want to feel better.  They need a physician or advanced practitioner with excellent clinical acumen.  One can not expect that telehealth will always be low-acuity, easy diagnoses.  High-quality medical care also incorporates education and motivation that provides patients with the tools to reach their health goals.

Relationships Matter: Trust is the foundational reason that patients continue to visit a specific provider.  They trust that they will be seen, trust that appropriate tests will be done, trust that their physician will place their best interests first and trust that they will feel better.  It takes time to develop that trust, and in a field like telemedicine where a patient might never see the same provider on a regular basis, the relationship is developed with the company or healthcare institution providing the service.  Standardized operations providing consistently good service will help reinforce positive experiences and create a repeat customer.  Just like in regular clinical practice, that trust is communicated to family and friends who can promote the use of the brand.

Cost: Patients are increasingly bearing the costs of healthcare.  Insurance companies are shifting that burden to patients who are having to become experts in their own insurance plans and cost-conscious consumers.  Price transparency is an important factor for patients making decisions.  They are looking for cheaper and more cost-effective ways to seek healthcare.  The allure of up-front pricing of telemedicine options allows patients to make more informed decisions.  Price transparency will continue to change patients’ consumer behaviors virtually as well as in clinical practice.

Time:  In medicine, it seems there is always too little or too much time.  The benefits will be diminished if telemedicine meanders down the same path as outpatient medicine.  If the wait time to obtain an appointment is too long, if appointments are delayed by physicians and advanced practitioners running behind, or if there is a delay in the next step in diagnostic testing, then the patient really is no better off virtually.  If the patient is feeling rushed by a distracted physician, if they can not discuss all the medical issues they have and have no time to tell their story, then the convenience of telemedicine is diminished.

Focusing on the patient experience through the virtual healthcare landscape can sharpen the focus for any telemedicine provider.  Successful integration of the technological advances we will encounter depends on our ability to continue to provide patients what they need first.