In the digital age, we’re more connected than ever, but at the same time, we’re less likely to have real, human contact than we were pre-internet. This is especially true in the medical realm, where it’s possible to receive top-tier care without ever having to set foot inside a medical facility. All the major players are innovating in this niche. Thanks to technology, it’s now possible to perform surgery from thousands of miles away and to deliver essential drugs and medical supplies to remote regions via drone.
On top of these seemingly far-fetched medical advancements, digital health technology is becoming more and more pervasive in hospitals and physicians’ offices, so much so that the average American patient has more than likely come into contact with one or more digital health solutions in their lifetime. If they haven’t, there’s evidence to suggest that they want it. In fact, 77 percent of all healthcare consumers say they’d welcome the opportunity for a virtual visit. These new opportunities mean more accessible care at a potentially much lower cost to the consumer.
Indeed, there’s a major upside to technology in health, there’s no denying that. But medical professionals have long wondered how such advancements would change the doctor-patient relationship. Will it render human medical professionals obsolete? Will it compromise the number of jobs available in the medical field? Most importantly, will it come at the cost of high-quality care? The answer is, as long as it’s bolstered by precaution and proper training—and, of course, the right digital health tools—changing technologies can only be good for overall health.
Staying Connected with Patients
Before we cover many important tactics to successfully maintaining a solid doctor-patient relationship, let’s look at some of the specific technologies that are widely available. Understanding how the digital health realm is changing—and which technologies are being adapted at what seems like lightning speed—will help us hone in on some of the biggest issues in the space, including privacy, safety and patient trust. Digital healthcare isn’t limited to just doctors and nurses. It will also be a major player for pharmacists, insurance companies, physical therapists and even health marketers.
- Wearable Devices—You may think of your patients’ wearable devices as tools that help them reach their specific health goals. But actually, with the right technology, smart watches can be linked up to a doctor’s preferred platform so that he or she can monitor it remotely. This allows doctors to see a patient’s vital signs—heart rate, hydration levels, sleep quality, blood sugar, blood pressure and more—without having to physically see the patient during a traditional checkup. The opportunities are truly endless with this technology. Think about how it could revolutionize patient care when dealing with highly contagious illnesses or sick astronauts on the International Space Station, for example.
- Electronic Health Records—The most pervasive technology in all realms of medical care is certainly the electronic health record (EHR). Essentially, it’s just a digital version of a patient’s chart. It seems pretty basic, but there’s actually something really revolutionary about EHRs. The most impressive aspect is that they improve coordination between healthcare providers—with your permission, doctors, surgeons and specialists can easily trade your health information online. They’re also known to increase patient participation and improve the effectiveness of diagnostics.
- Online Health Portals—These days, if you see a new doctor, there’s a good chance he or she will ask you whether you want to sign up for the patient portal. These usually optional websites or apps grant patients anytime-access to their personal health records. Some of these platforms also allow patients to send quick messages and e-mails to providers or to schedule appointments through an app or website. The great thing about online health portals is that they provide instant access for patients, eliminating the long back-and-forth of paperwork.
- Virtual Checkups—In the healthcare system of the future, patients no longer have to get dressed, get in the car and drive to the hospital or doctor’s office. All they have to do is log in to their provider’s virtual healthcare platform for treatment anytime, anywhere. While virtual visits aren’t yet the norm, they can be used to close gaps in care in rural and remote environments. However, many providers are allowing patients to supplement their regular in-person visits with virtual ones more and more often.
Answering the Question of Security
If you’re anything like us, after reading about health-related technology your mind asks one big question: What about security? After the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) passed in 1996, stringent regulations were set forth for healthcare providers with regard to data privacy. With so many new vulnerabilities with regards to data, it’s vital that digital health companies double-down on privacy to keep patient information safe. Not only is it important for patient security, but it’s also key to lessening a caregiver’s liability.
Beyond the fact that securing patient information is strictly enforced by the law, it’s also an extremely important component to forging relationships with patients. Your patients’ data may contain embarrassing or stigmatizing information. The best caregivers know that because of these hurdles, patients often don’t report all symptoms or challenges, which can result in less accurate diagnoses. The best patient-caregiver relationships are those that are candid and honest, which can result in higher quality and more effective care. But no patient is going to offer up potentially embarrassing information if he or she doesn’t trust the provider and his or her ability to keep data secure.
One way that providers can secure patient information is to use systems that don’t allow data to be duplicated, such as blockchain. Originally used to facilitate the exchange of digital currency, the power of blockchain is now being harnessed in many different industries, including healthcare. Essentially, blockchain is a network of computers that validate and relay data without the need to copy it. At the same time, blockchain allows data to remain readily available to patients and caregivers.
Let’s take a closer look at precisely how blockchain can facilitate more secure medical records. The Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) recently created The Blockchain Challenge in order to help medical professionals come up with blockchain-related solutions to privacy, security and the management of electronic health records.
The winners argued that blockchain could help correct issues of patient consent for data sharing and to more securely authenticate changes within a set of data. How, you ask? Blockchain is able to use time stamping to authenticate changes across many systems and providers. This, say those who submitted to the challenge, will help address issues of patient trust, which in turn could help lower a doctor’s liability with regard to billing fraud and erroneous malpractice claims.
It’s All About ‘Webside Manner’
As you can tell, building trust between the provider and the patient is extremely important in the e-health landscape. Another important way that caregivers can bridge the trust gap is through what’s now being called “webside manner.” In a nutshell, webside manner takes the traditional bedside manner philosophy—the method in which caregivers communicate and interact with patients in-person—into virtual visits, e-mails and chat communications. Here are some great ways that healthcare providers have improved their webside manner approach.
- The Environment—One of the most important ways to improve patient trust and satisfaction in a virtual health space is to create an environment that mimics real life. A great example is the virtual clinic at UC Davis Health in Sacramento, Calif., which features video-friendly lighting and backdrops that make patients feel like they’re receiving in-person care.
- Provider Behavior—Another major hurdle in the virtual care department is the fact that video interactions tend to exaggerate certain behaviors. If a doctor turns away from the camera to write something down or is fidgeting with settings while a patient is trying to explain his or her symptoms, the feeling of distrust and alienation may be heightened. Training caregivers to appear totally focused and attentive is key to a successful online visit.
- Ease of Use—Even with a carefully curated environment and a webside manner trained doctor, patients won’t get very far with healthcare technologies that they don’t feel comfortable using. Just like with any industry, customer experience (CX) needs to be at the forefront when developing digital health tools. Making applications and websites totally intuitive and user-friendly will help ensure that patients don’t feel abandoned or frustrated on their e-health journey.
Making Safety a Priority
In many ways, digital health systems have allowed for major advancements in safer healthcare—they let doctors monitor patients around the clock and prevent contamination in medical environments, among other considerations. However, there are certainly instances where patient safety can be put at risk in remote care. Interestingly, many issues of patient safety go back to issues of patient security. For example, what if a patient stole another patient’s identity for the purpose of billing fraud or prescription theft?
These issues are first and foremost issues of patient and provider security, but they can also compromise a patient’s health by affecting his or her medical history and records. Additionally, it could be argued that leaked patient information could pose a risk to the patient’s care if sensitive personal information—such as where a patient lives and what kinds of prescriptions are in his or her possession—fell into the wrong hands. Therefore, the problems of patient security and safety are very closely intertwined— the two should be immediate priorities for any organization looking to add more high-tech tools to its caregiving arsenal.
Still, basic patient safety rounds should be just as important in a virtual environment as they are in a traditional one. The American Hospital Association (AHA) released a set of virtual care strategies that help doctors safely administer care in a virtual environment. The AHA emphasizes the importance of remote patient monitoring and diagnostics tools if a caregiver intends to completely replace initial in-office visits and consultations with virtual ones. It also highlights the importance of health professionals regularly receiving ongoing medical education with regard to virtual practice.
Proper Training and Tools Equal Good Relationships
There’s no use in fighting it—the healthcare world, like the rest of the world, is quickly becoming more and more digital. The leading hospital systems, healthcare providers and physicians are already fast adapting to create a more interconnected, high-tech healthcare system. And, quite frankly, providers who don’t adopt such technologies risk being left behind, especially as more digital-savvy patients begin to age and require more and more care.
But providers can’t simply adopt these tools without a well-thought-out strategy. In order to make your virtual visits, electronic health records and other essential modern healthcare solutions work at their best, you have to be able to successfully infuse a little bit of a human touch into your digital efforts. Partnering with systems that are as secure as possible, focusing on a good webside manner approach and emphasizing patient safety will help you get there.