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Preserving patient–provider relationships via telehealth encounters

Image of telehealth app

As telehealth use continues to increase, patients and providers have come to appreciate the convenience and flexibility remote care offers. At the same time, this burgeoning mode of care delivery has its tradeoffs, especially regarding human connection. For example, nearly 60% of adults over 50 are concerned about not having a personal relationship with their doctor when it comes to telehealth. Similarly, many providers are still refining how they should interact with patients in the virtual world.

Given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, clinicians must be prepared to see more patients via telehealth as COVID-19 case numbers fluctuate. Consider the following tips to maintain positive patient–provider relationships during virtual visits.

Set the patient up for a successful visit

In a survey from the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition, approximately 64% of providers identified technology barriers for patients as a top telehealth challenge. Broadband and technology access disparities are difficult for individual providers to address, but healthcare organizations can take steps to assist less tech-savvy patients who do have reliable internet and devices.

Share clear, simple instructions detailing how to navigate your telehealth platform before the appointment. This may include discussing the setup process as well as how to troubleshoot common issues, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). If time and resources allow, have a member of your organization walk the patient through the platform during a mock virtual visit. These strategies can help reduce issues that would otherwise detract from time spent discussing the patient’s clinical needs and strengthen your rapport during the allotted appointment window.

Show (and tell) patients you’re giving them your undivided attention

During virtual encounters, patients and providers may feel a disconnect because nonverbal communication is limited when the other person is not in the same room. However, there are workarounds providers can use to signal to patients that they are giving them their full attention. First, looking at a device’s camera instead of the image onscreen can create a feeling similar to eye contact, as if the patient and provider were in the same room. If possible, use two screens at once so you can seamlessly look at the patient and the electronic health record (EHR) rather than toggling between the two.

When you are in the EHR, be sure to tell the patient that you are looking between two screens so it is clear you are not merely distracted. Finally, in its telehealth implementation playbook, the American Medical Association suggests turning off all unnecessary applications during patient visits. This will prevent notifications from disturbing your conversation.

Recognize telehealth’s unique advantages

When those of us in the healthcare industry discuss telehealth, we often talk about how it enables us to “meet patients where they are.” But this really goes beyond enabling the patient to hold an appointment wherever they like. Virtual visits give providers a window into patients’ everyday lives in a way a typical exam room cannot.

Take stock of patients’ surroundings, as this may provide you unexpected insights into their health and wellness. For example, an ashtray in the background could prompt you to discuss smoking habits in greater detail than you otherwise might. If they are comfortable, have patients show you their medicine cabinets or pantries (if they are able to do so while maintaining privacy) to get a better sense of their daily habits. Support the involvement of other household members if patients would like to have them present while discussing their health and treatment options.

We know that most of a patient’s health is determined by what happens outside the four walls of a healthcare setting. As you are let into the patient’s environment, use this opportunity to connect in new, meaningful ways. With a few adjustments, patient–provider relationships can evolve along with telehealth—without sacrificing the most human elements of healthcare experiences.

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