When we talk about doctor-patient communication, we tend to focus on what happens in the course of an appointment. Do we allot enough time to patients? Do they feel comfortable asking questions? Did they understand any instructions or explanations? While we’re preoccupied by these questions, however, as doctors we have a tendency to overlook another important element – our ability to communicate with patients outside the office.
Active doctor-patient communication, including the use of patient portals, has been shown to improve patient outcomes, yet few practices make sufficient use of the alternative communication models. As HIPAA-compliant technology becomes more widely available, however, we no longer have an excuse to shirk our responsibility to be available to our patients.
Medicine As Social Practice
One reason that communication is regularly overlooked in medicine is that we think of our work as fundamentally scientific, when it’s really a fundamentally social endeavor. Doctors need excellent social skills to build connections with patients, break through the stigma surrounding topics like mental health, and overcome social and cultural differences. With the rise of digital communication platforms in healthcare, then, we’re reminded of how often the social element of medicine should come into play.
Preferred Communication Platforms
To maintain ongoing communication with your patients, your practice should be prioritizing certain secure platforms and educating patients on their use. But what format should you choose? Many practices today are integrating e-visits through their patient portal software with normal care, and they’ve found that these digital visits increase primary care use and trigger more clinic visits, rather than a decrease in in-person visits, as many might expect.
The primary downside to e-visits, like the increasingly popular practice of telemedicine, of course, is that it requires a real-time connection, which can be a barrier to use. Luckily, the simplest alternative to such e-visits may also be the most familiar to patients: email.
Email And The Medical Enterprise
It’s taken an unusually long time for email to be used in medicine because of HIPAA regulations; across the board, email just isn’t secure, which is why doctors still fax records and other documents and sue compartmentalized portal software for communication. More recently, though, add-on programs have made it possible to encrypt Gmail to meet HIPAA security standards without worrying about both parties using the same programs. This has been a real boon to doctor-patient communication, allowing patients to contact their doctors in a format they’re already comfortable using.
Patients Want More
The bottom line in doctor-patient communication is that patients want more. According to a survey by the non-profit Samueli Integrative Health Programs, patients want to talk to their doctors more during appointments. While this may not be possible under current constraints, embracing digital communication could improve patient satisfaction and trust in their medical team and help provide focus during in-person appointments. Digital communication also enables patients to ask questions about their treatment, follow-up about concerns, and can improve overall compliance without requiring additional appointments.
Despite reticence by some healthcare professionals to take on digital communications with patients because answering portal messages and emails isn’t covered in reimbursement standards, how we practice medicine is changing. In the coming years, we’ll see more patients via camera and fewer in person, turn to remote medicine for specialist care, and use portals, email, and text messages to talk to patients every day. This isn’t your grandfather’s medical practice – and that’s good news for patients.