Jun 06, 2017 Connect After Clinic: How Digital Technologies Can Strengthen the Physician-Patient Relationship
-Michael Weiner, MD, MPH & Paul Biondich, MD Smart IT must accommodate, preserve, and uplift interpersonal relationships in health care. Click To Tweet
The physician-patient relationship is an important but often overlooked contributor to patient health. Impressively, a good physician-patient relationship is just as important to health outcomes as the use of well-established medical interventions. It is therefore critical that physicians and patients alike commit to the development of this important connection and explore opportunities to strengthen it.
What contributes to a healthy physician-patient relationship?
Physicians who communicate well are more likely to have high-quality relationships with their patients. One beneficial communication skill is the ability to convey empathy. More empathetic physicians develop stronger relationships, experience fewer malpractice cases, and enjoy healthier bottom lines. Doctors, scientists, patients, and patient advocates increasingly recognize the importance of empathy in healthcare, and some training programs now require empathy courses as a result.
The way that physicians present information to patients is important as well. Expressing information in a digestible manner increases the likelihood that patients will understand physician messages. The delivery of the messages – from order to word choice – also influences the chances that patients will remember the essential points.
The quality of physician communication likely drives improved patient outcomes due to some of these other observed effects of skillful communication:
- Higher patient satisfaction
- Enhanced trust in healthcare providers
- Improved adherence to medications
- Reduced physician burnout
Does technology threaten the physician-patient relationship?
Most of the controversy regarding the impact of technology in medicine centers on administrative medical technologies (i.e. “Health IT”). Health IT skeptics worry that new technologies will damage the physician-patient relationship. They often cite data showing that technology distracts from face-to-face communication. For instance, physician use of computers during clinic reduces eye contact.
Reduced human interaction can be an unfortunate side effect of the implementation of certain technologies. Another troubling side effect is the administrative burden physicians now bear. Physician burnout is a growing concern and adversely affects both physicians and patients.
The existence of these issues does not, however, mean that physicians should reject health applications of digital technologies for fear that these technologies may undermine the physician-patient relationship. In fact, rejecting digital trends can harm the relationship by demonstrating a lack of commitment to patient preferences.
Rejecting digital technology hinders physicians’ relationships with patients
Patients in the United States view online accessibility as the status quo and rate healthcare providers’ Internet friendliness as important to the quality of their care. One study showed that 95% of patients surveyed felt that email was more efficient than the phone for physician-patient communication.
Younger patients are not the only ones who express this digital preference. McKinsey & Company recently reported that the majority of their study participants who were 65 and older felt that websites were more effective than both phone and in-person communication.
When physicians refuse to adapt to patient preferences, they limit patient satisfaction. As such, physicians who refuse to embrace the digital communication platforms that patients want them to use will likely find it more challenging to develop patient loyalty.
Dynamic websites and social media activity improve the communication that’s critical to the physician-patient relationship
Physicians can use digital platforms to improve critical aspects of physician-patient communication.
Physician use of digital strategies to communicate with patients demonstrates empathy and a commitment to accommodating patient preferences. Most physicians are aware that patients want continuous access to reliable medical information. Searching for health information is the 3rd most popular online activity. The content within digital communication can also demonstrate empathy and humanize physicians and their staff, thereby reinforcing physician-patient relationships.
Digital activity also offers a way for physicians to communicate more effectively and more extensively than they can during clinic. The digital information physicians provide can reinforce or supplement the information that is exchanged in person. The nature of the platforms enables physicians to take the time to think strategically about how to structure information to maximize its value for patients. Physicians can also add value by creating and curating content that is targeted specifically to their patients and geographical area.
Patients now encounter higher quality customer service and a heightened ability to control outcomes across other industries. As a result, they have begun to expect these things in healthcare. Indeed, customer service and a provider’s ability to make life easier are cited as critical to patient satisfaction. Given that digital technologies are the basis for many of today’s conveniences, physicians who do not embrace these tools are unable to provide the ideal patient experience.
As digital communication has become more prevalent, expectations about the nature and extent of communication we receive from loved ones, colleagues, and service providers have changed. The quality and volume of interactions between in-person visits significantly influences our relationships. More than ever before, we expect continuous communication in our best and most important relationships.
How much closer do you feel with friends or family members with whom you exchange text messages or follow on Facebook? Patients who regularly receive updates from their doctors with insights on current health trends and medical research are more likely to trust their doctor’s expertise and judgment – especially if the messages are easy to access and digest.
- Digital communication offers a way for physicians to continuously nurture their relationships with their patients. Physicians can use active web content and social media to better position themselves as well-rounded medical leaders whose value extends beyond their clinical expertise. Physicians who combine their valuable medical training with a commitment to satisfying patients’ medical and psychological needs are bound to have the best physician-patient relationships.