Use emerging digital technology to improve communication with patients

With the growing demand of patient demands, change in healthcare delivery with Affordable Care Act, physicians are asked to adapt to these changes rapidly. In order to be efficient and provide this level of care to patients, the use of digital technology in medicine has grown dramatically. New platforms for integrating medical care and digital technology have been developed to enhance doctor patient communication.

Digital technology encompasses a broad range of tools such as  smartphone applications, email, EMR, patient portals, telemedicine, and more are growing.

With easy access to the Internet via smartphones or tablets, patients have the opportunity to access medication and health information at their disposal. Within seconds, one can seek medical advice, research treatment options, disease prognosis, and view videos of surgical procedures online. Although physicians remain the most trusted source of medication information, studies have shown that patients seek medical information online. In 2005, a Health Information National Trends survey reported 63.7% of a total of 6369 patients searched health related information prior to visiting their physician.

As a physician today, it is common to anticipate questions from patients regarding the newest treatment options, be knowledgeable about their conditions, medications and even surgical treatment options. This serves as an advantage, in a way, as it may promote better understanding among patients. However, does that compromise or improve the patient-doctor relationship, more specifically, communication between the two?

Despite these avenues, a common complaint faced by health-care providers today is the lack of communication and empathy from physicians. And as one would expect, effective communication positively influences patient outcomes. As physicians provide patients with clear information, involve them in decision-making, follow up consistently and educate patients on their conditions, results show improved emotional, functional and physiologic health such as pain mood, anxiety, blood pressure, and even blood glucose levels among patients.

Moreover, in today’s technologically favored society, avenues to improve patient-physician communication continue to grow. Email or virtual diaries are tools, for instance, and may be accessed by any location, providing an opportunity to increase communication between the two parties.  Physicians have the opportunity to review how treatment is impacting the patient on a regular basis. This way a better, custom treatment plan can be designed for the patient.

Email communication has great potential to improve patient-doctor communication. Emails serve as an opportunity to prevent medical errors and keep patients actively involved in their care, as well. It makes physicians more accessible and allows for more thorough exchange of information that may be missed during an office visit or via a phone conversation. Patients can potentially avoid the inconvenience of waiting for weeks or even months to speak to their physicians regarding their health conditions.

In 2005, a pilot study investigated patient and physician satisfaction after 6 months of communication via email messages. Emails usually consisted of messages requesting more information, medical consults/questions, medication refill and administrative requests. Surveys revealed that patient satisfaction was much higher in the group of patients that communicated via email, as they felt it was convenient and efficient. Patients were more satisfied as they also enjoyed quick updates on their conditions. Only 2/172 participants reported minimal concerns over privacy. Similarly, physicians reported convenience; felt that they were able to manage their patients more efficiently via email communication. Most did not notice and increase in the volume or time spent communicating with patients.

Common practice to utilize email remains relatively common and high among physicians. In 2008, an increase was also reported between individuals at hospitals and pharmaceutical companies as well. However, the need to encourage email use, with proper establishments to ensure patient-privacy still persists among health care providers.

On the contrary, it may be argued that email communication cannot substitute in-person interaction with patients that takes place in an office setting. As via email, tone, body language, facial expressions and emotions cannot be completely assessed. Some may argue that electronic communication completely eliminates body language or bedside manner from the experience. Most importantly, there is no opportunity to make eye contact. Several studies have shown that patients’ gestures and body language elicit how they feel about their treatment, physician and such.

However, numerous surveys have discussed the efficacy of electronic communication and it’s positive impact on patient-physician communication. Common practice to utilizing such tools depends on physician preference. In conclusion, email is an easy, safe and effective option to consider. With caution, that physicians follow certain guidelines to protect patient privacy, with legal and ethical limitations in mind.

Anita Gupta is an anesthesiologist.

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