In the telemedicine era, more and more patients are interacting with their doctors via telehealth technology. According to Modern Healthcare, the telemedicine market was worth $500 million in 2014, and is expected to grow to $13 billion by 2020. It's estimated that three-quarters of employers will offer telemedicine consults as part of their health plans in 2017. Virtual appointments are now commonplace.
But how does bedside manner translate through a screen? According to mHealthNews, "desktop manner is the new bedside manner." And it can be a game changer. Even the best physician can lose a patient if they can't connect and engage with them on an emotional level. Increasingly, the emphasis in healthcare is on value, and that is what patients have come to expect. Feeling empathy toward a patient and actually displaying empathy outwardly are two different things. Learning how to project a caring and genuine connection to your patient during a virtual visit will be the key to your success as a telehealth provider.
Why is virtual bedside manner important?
The best bedside manner will foster a patient's trust, and improve compliance to the treatment plan. If patients trust and like you, they will trust and follow your recommendations. In fact, an article from Modern Healthcare references a 2014 study that shows bedside manner actually statistically impacts patient health. It affects the incidence of obesity, asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and osteoarthritis. It can also affect a patient's ability to lose weight and maintain blood sugar levels. A Medscape article quotes Dr. James Tulsky of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham & Women's Hospital:
... patient experience drives quality. That is what is expected by people. The thing that will affect their sense of having a good experience is their sense of a clinician whom they believe understands what they're going through. That's the definition of empathy.
In a nutshell, increasing your empathy increases your value, which increases your patient's experience.
So how do you convey empathy through a screen?
Good bedside manner means your patient feels that you are truly present and interested in their feelings, well-being, thoughts, and opinions. It conveys a sense of professionalism and reassurance. Despite how you may actually feel, poor bedside manner will always convey a feeling that you are withdrawn, uncaring, and aloof.
- Introduce yourself. Tell your patient a little about yourself and what to expect during the appointment. If you don't start off this way, the whole appointment will feel distant. On the flip side, don't end the appointment abruptly and turn off the camera. Make sure to leave time for questions and answers at the end of the session.
- Display empathy. This can mean showing compassion, helping calm fears, and providing hope when serious medical conditions arise.
- Maintain eye contact. This is different via technology than in-person. On video you will need to look into the camera on your computer, and not at the patient's image on the screen. Looking at the image can come across as you looking down and not visually connecting with your patient.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Make sure the room you are in is not cluttered, and that the lighting quality is good so that you can be clearly seen.
- Communicate clearly. Explain what you are doing. If you are going to look away to read the chart, tell your patient what you are doing so they don't interpret your behavior as not paying attention to them.
- Be comfortable with the technology you are using. This will make you look competent and prepared, as well as positioning you to be able to help the patient at the other end with their technology if need be.
- Pay attention to your body language. Make sure what you are saying with your body aligns with what you are saying with your words. Nonverbal communication becomes more of a focal point on camera. Try to come across as relaxed and comfortable. Be kind and warm. Be aware of your expressions. On camera a furrowed brow can come across as angry, even if you are just thinking. A smile and laughter will increase the bond between you and your patient. Watch your posture. Slumping conveys disinterest, leaning in too close to the camera can look intimidating, and leaning back too far can mimic disinterest.
- Avoid side conversations or taking any phone calls. Limit anything that will distract you from your patient.
- Don't interrupt. Remember that a video delay could cause you and your patient to unintentionally talk over each other. Practice active listening. Repeat back what your patient said so that they feel understood and validated.
As the telehealth market continues to expand, these simple techniques can be used to elevate the patient experience and increase positive outcomes.