How to match technology to your personality and your patients' needs

Sometimes, even when things make sense on paper, they just don't feel right. Using an example from this week's issue, the potential to videoconference with my doctor sounds amazing--in theory. I could not only save time and gas, but I could shut my door away from the kids for 10 minutes and concentrate on the conversation (rather than using half my attention silently pleading with the powers that be that they'll stay well behaved at least until we get back to the car).

But when it comes to my preferred method of communication, talking to a person via screen feels about as natural as it did as a 9th grader asking to use the bathroom en Français. For whatever reason, that chatting via Skype or FaceTime, even for personal conversations, just feels intimidating. It's not that I don't know how to use the technology. My five-year-old knows how (and finds it thrilling). But for me, talking through a camera fires up my nervous system in a decidedly less-fun way.

As with anything new, I'm sure over time I could get used to it, even learn to enjoy it. Even as I type this post into a Word doc, I can think back to the days I insisted on writing all of my essays and term papers out by hand before typing them into my word processor, and later, computer. It's funny now to think about choosing to waste time and suffer hand cramps, just as it may be one day to reflect on driving to a doctor's office for five to seven minutes of verbal Q&A.

In the meantime, though, what's the risk of subjecting the healthcare experience to this type of distraction?

I'm 35, meaning my childhood version of mobile technology was the Speak & Spell, and I never imagined that Penny's watch from Inspector Gadget would become reality in my lifetime. Nonetheless, I'm no Luddite. The Internet and my smartphone have become an integral part of my daily life, and of my children's lives from the get-go.

While I'm just now getting to the age where some of the doctors I interview are younger than I am, the vast majority of U.S. physicians, not to mention the fastest-growing patient populations, are from older generations.

Maybe the discomfort I experience in adapting to new ways of communicating is more personal than generational. There could be people of all ages who can learn to love telemedicine immediately.

But if the bumpy, sometimes-awkward introduction of the electronic medical record into the exam room is any indication, my advice (borrowed from another of this week's top stories) is to walk before you run into replacing too much in-person care with George Jetson-esque visits.

Start with low-intensity, routine-type check-ins with this format, keeping the ages of providers and patients in mind. While a teen might be more comfortable discussing a sensitive subject via videochat, for example, that format might make me feel more inhibited. And clinicians of all experience levels need time for a learning curve, too.

Once you begin incorporating remote visits into your practice--and I'm convinced most of you will sooner or later--survey your patients and providers on whether they find it comfortable and effective. Watch for disconnects and patterns, and allow all parties involved to opt out or use new mediums on a limited basis.

Eventually, we may forget all about the days when there was anything odd about connecting humans through technology (think about how far we've come on the continuum already!). But in the meantime, the integrity of the healthcare experience is too important to lack patience in letting the physician-patient relationship evolve at a pace that works for everyone.

What do you think? If you've started using videoconferencing with your patients or plan to, please share with us your experience. Deb (@PracticeMgt)

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