From transactional to personal: the future of virtual care
When COVID-19 hit, healthcare providers around the world transitioned quickly to deliver medical consultations remotely. Using phones, videoconferencing software and electronic medical records (EMRs), healthcare providers were able to address the immediate needs of many patients without requiring in-person consultations.
Despite the quick technological pivot, these systems sometimes left me longing for the ‘old normal’ — the personalised touch I had been used to. I yearned for the days of visiting one of my favourite primary care doctors in person — he always made me feel understood and supported no matter how trivial the reason for my appointment. I always left the clinic with a smile.
On the COVID report card, most health providers get a tick for transitioning to telehealth. However, many of these telehealth consultations were transactional in nature and did not use the most advanced technology. In fact, in Australia, the majority of telehealth consultations were conducted over the telephone. In the ‘new normal’, if I had a serious, chronic or a more immediate debilitating condition, a telehealth consultation during the height of the pandemic just wouldn’t have cut it.
Even when videoconferencing is used, connection issues, technology malfunctions and the ubiquitous reminder that “You’re on mute!” make these experiences challenging. Additionally, clinicians are often distracted by the myriad of patient information being poorly presented on their computer screen. They can see a patient’s entire medical history, yet the patient has no idea what’s on the screen, which makes it feel like a one-sided conversation.
Simply put, we can — and must — do better.
Reconsidering the future
With the tapering-off of the pandemic in sight and more normal interactions back on the cards, in vaccinated countries at least, it’s time to reconsider what the future of virtual health care should look like. There’s no denying that virtual experiences can deliver significant benefits to patients by reducing their need to travel to see a doctor, potentially increasing their access to primary care and specialists, and more importantly, taking more control for their own care.
The future of telehealth — ‘telecare’, let’s call it — shifts health care away from the transactional and toward the personal. Telecare offers a patient-centric care experience in a virtual environment, removing distractions and barriers to communication and creating a higher quality interaction for both patients and doctors. Yet, during a recent Economist webinar on the future of remote care delivery, participants saw ‘the personal touch’ as the top obstacle to overcome.
Healthcare workers have a challenge: learning to manage new ways of interacting with patients virtually, while picking up on the traditional, non-verbal cues that help them diagnose and treat patients. The remote consultation tends to preclude the small talk portion of a clinical interaction, which is where clinicians get a wealth of information about their patients. Overcoming this is important for clinicians in order to provide the kind of patient-centric experience that engenders confidence and satisfaction.
The little things
Ultimately, improving virtual care comes down to helping patients feel like they’re receiving the same experience they would if they were in the same room as the doctor. This is less of a technology question than it is a clinician/patient relationship question. However, technology can support this by:
- making patient information available in a more intuitive, less distracting way;
- integrating appointment workflows into one system for simplicity and ease of use;
- providing patient self-service options like portals that give patients more control over their own health and care;
- letting doctors capture notes in a more streamlined way, like recording voice notes, rather than being distracted by a keyboard;
- providing wearable devices that capture patient data, allowing clinicians to make better care decisions for their patients.
Fortunately, care providers have realised the issues with telehealth and are committed to continuing the hard work ahead to make improvements. They recognise not only the personal, but the business needs of being able to provide a solid telehealth experience for patients.
The rapid rate of acceleration we’ve seen in telehealth over the last year was born out of necessity, but benefits to providers and patients are endless. Let’s use the lessons learned from the recent past as a stepping stone towards creating a better healthcare experience for tomorrow.
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