The human craving for eye contact turns out to be hardwired in our consciousness. 1760 marks the beginning of the physical diagnosis with the discovery of percussion by Auenbrugger, and its propagation by Corvisart. But it was the invention of the stethoscope in 1816 that contributed to the explosive development in the physical examination. Since then, several studies have confirmed that eye contact & face to face encounters are associated with higher levels of perceived empathy and connection. People always want to talk to their doctors, it’s all about the mass embracement and acceptability for them. They want to meet face to face and have the doctor be upfront and transparent about what their health condition is, but the onset of COVID-19 is changing the dynamics altogether be it the consumers, the doctors, the healthcare service providers or the policy makers.
The ferocity with which COVID-19 has taken over humanity has impelled us to think of what the healthcare of the future should look like. As COVID-19 pandemic began spreading across the world, waiting rooms of the hospitals & the clinics emptied almost overnight & honestly none of us were prepared.
However, the past few months have given us some very lucid evidences of the acceleration in the adoption of digital technologies globally. Behaviours started altering to the opportunities presented by the healthcare communications technologies & one of the most noteworthy mention goes to telemedicine.
Why it took a century & a pandemic to realize the true potential of telemedicine?
The modern-day telemedicine was perhaps first conceived in the year 1924, when the black and white cover of a Radio News showed a doctor conducting a patient encounter via a radio transmission. At that time, it took nearly two more decades for this ground breaking sci-fi idea to become a reality.
By the 60s and 70s, some of the biggest names in healthcare joined NASA in experimenting early Telehealth applications in a variety of specialty care settings. Altogether, Telehealth has a long history in the medical field, and has accelerated with each new technological innovation that’s transformed how we communicate over distances. It’s all of these trials and errors that have set the stage for what was going to become the biggest disruptor of every industry in the world “The Internet”.
However, going virtual with healthcare has not been a straightforward task, and it took much longer than anyone would have ever imagined. For telemedicine to reach its potential, we missed to address multiple issues in the past, like sluggish adoption rate, lack of infrastructure, complex health IT policies, privacy concerns, reimbursements, technical barriers, clinical barriers, cultural barriers, regulatory barriers etc. Unfortunately, it took a worldwide health emergency & its forced limitations to adopt telemedicine technologies by the care providers to deliver patient care backed by the chop-chop governmental level policy changes.
As the face-to-face consultations can be risky for both the patients and the doctors alike, telemedicine seemed like a perfect recipe to stay in touch, offers ongoing care, counselling, and all-time accessibility. Hence, under condition, remote consultations over the phone or video calls was the best way to help patients access health care while also limiting theirs’ and doctors’ exposure to the disease. COVID-19 made health care systems recognized this, and in a blitzkrieg-like move, transitioned many of their non-urgent outpatient visits to virtual, overnight!
The Dramatic change in a very short span of time!!
Irrespective of the virtual interactions completely changing patient-physician encounter, recent few months have brought an enormous and hurried adaptation that is challenging the unprofane practice of medicine. Amidst the pandemic, patients & providers are motivated by the necessity to use telemedicine services than anything else. Patients who would typically visit their physician in-person, are now worried about spending time in a waiting room and possibly opening themselves up to COVID-19 exposure. But while telemedicine can help to reduce the spread of COVID-19, keeping patients at home and out of crowded waiting rooms, using and proliferating telemedicine is only the first step. The next verge would be raising awareness among people about why they need to be continually taking advantage of this technology even post pandemic.
The telemedicine proponents feel that the thrust for virtual care during this crisis could be the moment they’ve been waiting for years, as the pandemic has drawn out a lot of restrictions for this industry globally. If it goes well, it could aid a larger movement for long-term changes. After the pandemic subsides, this particular technology push could establish a new norm in the practice of medicine.
McKinsey COVID-19 Survey, May 2020 (USA) reports that health systems, independent practices, behavioural health providers, & others rapidly scaled their telehealth offerings to fill the gap between need & cancelled in-person care. They are reporting 50 to 175 times the number of telehealth visits pre-COVID. In addition 57% of the providers view telehealth more favourably than they did before COVID-19 and 64% are more comfortable using it now.
Government leaders and all other stakeholders, therefore, need to reimagine how healthcare services of the future would be delivered. The future adoption of telemedicine would not necessarily be just the technology, but also the societal behaviour changes and the lifestyle habits of the people around the world post COVID.
Creating Experiences for the Doctors & the Patients alike — Humanising the Virtual Care Interactions
Many healthcare service providers are feeling frazzled and caught off guard while implementing feasible telemedicine solutions in a jiffy, but its these solutions that are allowing them to continue serving the patients and keep their services afloat during the pandemic. It has become more of a survival strategy now.
However, the shift towards a more robust organisational focus on patient satisfaction is a vital requirement & the attention must be on more strategic use of technology to improve the overall patient experiences. An effective coalesce of telemedicine with patient engagement strategies & the operational framework is the one needed now.
As we are expecting a widespread adoption of telemedicine as the new normal, the healthcare providers must dedicate time towards improving the experiences and tackling all the practical challenges that arise during the virtual doctor-patient interactions.
What has changed now, is that the patients are no longer visiting the doctor’s office and sitting in the waiting room; thus, it becomes much more vital to understand the patients’ current situation. It’s imperative that the care providers think on the patient journey, placing enormous focus on what happens before and after the online appointment. This will help the providers engage with the patients substantially.
And yes, Empathy is no less important in telemedicine. When someone is ill, distressed, confused or scared, it’s normal to see a doctor they know and trust, be it telemedicine or a personal visit, the practice of medicine is an art as well as a science, and meaningful empathetic communication is the key. “Being prepared, clearly communicating, and focus on the patient will help establish a positive patient-provider relationship”. Reviewing communication best practices will help providers maintain a high level of patient satisfaction with their care, even with the treatment transition to a virtual format.
Hence, we can say that, once every stakeholder gets a satisfactory user experience that’s convenient, less costly and time-efficient, the service will enter into a mainstream phase with a bigger market. Under such conditions, there is a high possibility for the market leader in this type of service to be the next unicorn.
Sustaining the momentum
This shift is not unstoppable though, hence it will require new ways of working from provider’s perspective, interoperability, and broadening access & integration of technology. But, most importantly, we need to think beyond Dr. Zoom, for the greater well being of the society as a whole.
As the market players & providers are considering to move now & support this dynamic shift to improve their future position in the healthcare industry, the entire system is on the verge of transition from a long-standing brick and mortar model to one with a large dependence on the virtual care. While the number of tele visits may not remain as high as they have climbed during the pandemic, the shift to virtual care delivery will indeed persist. So, the comforting prospect of these very testing times for both the patients and the providers, is to find the best value proposition of this transition as a whole.
There is an urgent need for learning how to optimize patient outcomes through an innovative combination of healthcare service delivery models. The telemedicine of the future must have the capability of equating the healthcare, empowering people to stay in control of their health conditions right at the comfort of their homes, give them an intuitive experience backed with trustworthiness and accuracy to lead a healthier life. While we have to wait to see if COVID-19 will prove to be telemedicine’s watershed moment or just a bubble!
Your thoughts & telemedicine experiences are most welcome for a shared learning 🙂
Best, Dr. Monika Sonu. CEO Healthinnovationtoolbox.