How Physicians Can Put the Care into Virtual Care

Virtual care is here to stay. And it’s an opportunity for providers to provide a better patient experience.

Before Covid-19 hit, the healthcare industry was already moving toward a model in which physicians deliver more routine services remotely, such as use of mobile devices to communicate information to patients faster and more directly and delivering routine prescriptions such as birth control pills and hair-loss medications to patients through remote consultations. The emergence of companies such as Teladoc expanded ways for physicians and patients to communicate with each other digitally. Then the pandemic accelerated the uptake of virtual care dramatically amid stay at home orders and office closures. At one point, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported an 11,000 percent increase in the use of virtual care. Although virtual care usage will taper off from peak levels, it’s here to stay. 

As more physicians embrace virtual care, it’s important to manage expectations for what it can and cannot do. Virtual care is meant to be convenient to increase access to care with greater immediacy. Let’s not try to make it something it isn’t. We often compare digital solutions to their physical counterparts and then get frustrated when they fall short. There is a place for digital healthcare, and there is a place for in-person healthcare. And going forward they will continue to coexist. 

At the same time, virtual care can and should be more than an impersonal experience. Physicians can humanize the experience even though the provider and patient are communicating remotely. The key is for physicians to treat virtual care as a journey that begins before an actual appointment and continues after a patient receives care. We know from a 2020 Press Ganey telehealth survey that patients’ likelihood of recommending the video visit is influenced strongly by process issues, such as how well the provider coordinates the visit and manages the technology required – which are issues that arise before, during, and after an appointment. 

Before

It’s important that physicians put themselves in the shoes of the patient and understand the emotions that a patient might be experiencing as they book a virtual care visit – probably a mix of some relief and apprehension. The patient might be relieved that they don’t need to inconvenience themselves driving to a doctor’s office, and perhaps they’re glad not to leave their homes and be in the proximity of other people with fears of COVID. But they might feel apprehensive for a number of reasons. Patients might:

  • Not know the physician. Their insurance carrier might have restricted them to a provider they have not worked with before.
  • Be unfamiliar with how to manage the technology.
  • Be uncertain that the physician will understand and know how to treat the issue without an in-person examination.
  • Not know what to expect. How long will they need to wait for the physician to appear on screen? Will they wait in a virtual waiting room, and how will that experience work? 

Physicians need to address those apprehensions while leaning into the factors that make virtual care appealing. This mean providers should:

  • Make booking engines easy to use. Assign someone on staff to road test them. How easy can someone find the Book an Appointment button? What happens after a patient does that? How quickly do they get an email and/or confirmation text explaining the details of their care? 
  • Humanize the experience. Provide background about the physician ahead of time, including their biography and a photo – anything to make the patient comfortable with a remote session. This helps provide instant credibility and ease discomfort associated with a virtual session.
  • Explain how the process will work in their follow-up confirmation. Walk the patient through the process of preparing for the visit (including any technological considerations) and the logistics of the actual visit, ranging from whether a person will greet them before the actual physician’s meeting or whether the patient will simply wait online for the physician to appear. 

During 

Context means everything during the actual appointment. When patients walk into a physician’s brick-and-mortar office, they see frequent visual cues that they’re in a professional environment, such as a physician’s credentials on the wall. But when they meet with a physician virtually, their only frame of reference is what they see on a tiny screen while they hang out in their living rooms. So consider the big picture and: 

  • Provide visual cues reinforcing a physician’s professionalism. Use a room that is private, of course, but make sure it looks like a physician’s office. Consider how physicians are dressed as well. 
  • Focus on the patient on screen. Doing so has potentially more impact than an in-person visit. In the words of a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Among the reasons the telehealth connection seems to resonate with patients is that providers can actually seem more attentive on-screen. One patient commented that while her doctor always seemed distracted by a computer screen during in-person visits, during video visits the doctor looked directly at her.” 
  • Rely on available tools that maximize the value of digital, such as screen sharing, recorded video content relevant to the visit, and the ability to call up links to online information sources and share them with patients in real time. Since physicians and patients are both likely in front of laptops or smartphones, it may be easier to do those things than if they were both in an office. 

After

What’s the most important step a provider can take afterward? Get feedback from the patient and specifically ask about their virtual appointment experience. For example, how easy was it to book an appointment? Was the technology seamless? Was the process clearly understood? Was the medical issue resolved after the visit or did it continue? Physicians can collect feedback in any number of ways, but the mere act of asking a patient for feedback shows that the provider cares and adds to the experience. Closing the feedback loop is one of the primary challenges physicians have with their patients, and digital technology helps remove many of those hurdles. Patient feedback is like gold. The more a provider knows, the better the experience and medical outcomes will be. 

The Physician Factor

As providers incorporate virtual care into their facilities, they should consider the reality that not all physicians may want to adopt it.  Don’t try to force virtual care on physicians that have no interest in it. Instead, work with physicians who are early adopters and excited to embrace the technology. A key benefit of virtual care is providers can find physicians anywhere across the country; perhaps residents who would be thrilled to do some virtual moonlighting. Pull from a  pool of physicians who can serve as ambassadors for those more reluctant or uncertain of the medium.

For More Information

Download a copy of dentsu’s Year in Review Revolution of Rising Expectations to learn more about my thoughts on the future of healthcare. In this report, dentsu strategists reflect on the moments that changed marketing in 2020, and share 2021 predictions for the next frontier of marketing. 

To improve the virtual care experience and transform care delivery, contact Isobar. We can help design a complete experience along the entire care journey. 

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