Humanizing Healthcare Through Telehealth
Humanizing healthcare may be the greatest benefit of telehealth.
Long lauded as a means to close the healthcare gap for patients in rural areas and make specialists more widely available, telehealth also promises to enhance communications between patients, caregivers, and medical professionals, thereby improving the diagnosis and long-term treatment of disease.
COVID was a major driver behind the need for virtual care, but the tech and healthcare communities alike agree that remote patient visits cannot replace in-person care for every healthcare need. Research shows that patients were eager to return to doctors’ offices in person after the vaccine became available in early 2021; in June, one report found that telehealth use in some states had already declined as much as 37% from peak-pandemic highs.
It's important to remember that while telehealth is a useful tool, it's not the panacea for the healthcare system. The technology serves to connect patients and doctors remotely when appropriate – but also to break down communication barriers that exist even in an in-person care setting.
“Communication is the number one diagnostic tool a provider has,” explained Jamey Edwards, Co-Founder of Cloudbreak Health, a telehealth provider, in a recent interview with For the Health of It. “What happens when communication breaks down? Physicians practice defensive medicine, ordering lots of unnecessary tests and making determinations that may not result in the best outcomes.”
Recognizing the crucial role communications plays in improving health outcomes, Cloudbreak has made it its mission to humanize healthcare through its telehealth services in the U.S. From Jamey’s perspective, this means leaning on digital communication tools to develop deeper relationships between patients and providers – an approach that has a quantifiable, positive impact on long-term outcomes. Translation apps that promote a dialogue between healthcare professionals and non-native English speakers, or those with low English proficiency, are narrowing the healthcare communications gap. A recent analysis found that using these apps can improve quality of life and chronic disease management.
Creating human connections between healthcare professionals and their patients was a primary driver behind the creation of Cloudbreak.
“Our humanizing healthcare mantra came out of our desire to make sure that we’re treating patients like people – and that doctors are treated like people too,” Edwards explained. “The number one driver of provider burnout is treating a patient like an object instead of a person.” Instead, he says, healthcare organizations need to provide resources that enable both parties to clearly and comfortably express themselves, so patients can be seen for their full-lived experiences and providers can provide the highest quality of care possible.
When meeting with a healthcare professional, whether in-office or through a remote telemedicine service, patients play an important role to share information that can help ensure a correct diagnosis. At the same time, they also need to understand the guidance their physicians provide.
Nearly 22% of the U.S. population speaks a language other than English at home, and 2.4% are deaf or hearing-impared. Limited English proficiency is a significant driver of health disparities and exacerbates other social determinants of health. Without adequate translation services, these patients often face barriers accessing healthcare, experience lower-quality care, and worse health outcomes.
Though healthcare providers often offer in-office translation services, particularly within an emergency room setting, varying translation quality can lead to wide disparities in outcomes. A recent study of emergency room visits found potentially consequential errors increased 60% when an ad hoc interpreter is used instead of a professional.
The benefits go beyond just improved outcomes. Humanized healthcare means that patients and physicians connect and empathize with each other, strengthening the partnership between both parties over the long term.
While telehealth holds great promise, there are still many hurdles to overcome. Though the number of healthcare providers offering telemedicine care climbed from just 3% before COVID-19 to 34% nationwide by June 24, 2020, the use of telehealth services during the pandemic was unevenly distributed. A 2020 Komodo analysis found a 17-percentage point gap separating the states with the largest providers offering telemedicine during the pandemic (Vermont and Rhode Island) and the states with the lowest level of adoption (Missouri and Montana).
Still, the opportunity to enhance access to technology that improves connections among healthcare professionals, patients, and caregivers provides a glimpse of the long-term promise of a more humanistic healthcare system.
“It’s time to build the next chapter of our healthcare system – and that will be digital-first and human-centered,” Edwards explained. “The more we can do to improve patient and physician communications and to keep a patient in the environment in which they’re most comfortable, whether that is in hospital, at home, or on the top of a mountain somewhere, if we can get them the care they need on their own terms at the right time, we’ll all be better off.”
Check out the full conversation with Jamey Edwards on For The Health of It on YouTube, featuring more insights on how the industry can better humanize healthcare.