Virtual consultancy has become very popular recently, especially as the arrival of COVID-19 has significantly changed the healthcare landscape and it seems that video consultations are here to stay.
With over three decades of data showing the positive effects of using digital technology to provide patient care, there is no doubt that telemedicine has the potential to increase access to high-quality care and decrease costs. Driven by the need for infection control, the speed and scale of change are unprecedented with one service provider going from 5% virtual patient contact to 95% in just a short space of time. It’s a story that would have been unusual, but one which is now becoming increasingly common.
Despite the benefits of increased access to care, quality improvements and cost controls, virtual consultancy also comes with some challenges that patients and practitioners alike will need to overcome.
Key challenges and potential solutions
1. Embracing change
Change is seldom easy to embrace and it’s no surprise that the rapid rise of virtual consultancy has been met with reticence and even resistance in some places. Yet with adequate training, most providers quickly realise that video consultations help to facilitate a team-centric approach that significantly enhances coordinated care. With the obstacle of inaccessibility due to geographic distance eliminated, the challenge of coordinating team-based care becomes very much easier.
2. The struggle for space
Consulting room space is often at a premium in hospital settings. It’s a challenge that is often exacerbated by the need for a quiet and appropriate space to conduct a welcoming and completely private video consultation. Room aesthetics, natural l lighting and high-quality cameras all play a significant part in creating a positive patient experience and enhancing engagement, yet even with minimal physical space it’s possible to create a virtual environment that is both believable and sufficiently interactive.
3. Clinician retention and clinical burnout
For rural practitioners in particular, working remotely can be challenging in terms of maintaining close working relationships with colleagues. Eventually, this can lead to a sense of isolation, stress and even burnout. Yet interestingly, studies are showing that virtual consultations can have an unexpected benefit of connecting isolated providers with their peers from other hospitals. A significant benefit of this enhanced interconnectedness is that clinicians can have greater confidence in treating complex cases.
Clinician burnout can also pose a significant challenge when it comes to efficiency and patient safety, especially during the increased pressures of working through a pandemic, but many of these pressures can be directly related to workflow inefficiencies. This is why the greater flexibility of virtual consultancy has so much to offer. For many doctors, virtual consultations are also a way of bringing medicine back to its roots, back into communities and back into individual patients homes.
4. Patient satisfaction
One of the greatest obstacles to introducing video consultations is the fear of creating impersonal patient experiences and of missing critical clinical information. It’s also often assumed that because patients and clinicians are communicating through a video screen, the consultation will be shorter than a traditional in-person visit, with less of a caring human connection. Yet this is actually a myth, as virtual visits compel both the patient and the provider to have more eye contact and can often improve interactions for patients who aren’t comfortable seeing a doctor in person.
From the clinician’s point of view, there are also a range of simple techniques that can be employed to help patients feel as though they are speaking with a real person and not a computer. For example, using simple rapport building skills and asking patient-centred questions are valuable ways to encourage open discussion and sharing of information. Good communication skills that can so easily be lost in face to face meetings, such as making direct eye contact, actively listening, and not interrupting when the patient is speaking, can all go a long way to improving patient satisfaction during a virtual visit.
5. Privacy and security concerns
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of virtual consultancy is overcoming patients concerns about privacy and the security of personal information. Maintaining high levels of patient trust is essential if virtual consultancy is to be successful. This is why the Spacestor Consult Plus consultation booths have the option to restrict access to approved users only. This is a particularly valuable feature as pods may be located in public areas like waiting rooms or corridors.
6. Digital equality and accurate visual representation
The recently published NHS report ‘Monitoring equality in digital public services’ emphasises the importance of digital equality for people of all ages and all skin tones. Clinically, it’s also vital that the patient’s appearance, including their facial expressions and natural skin tone can be clearly assessed. These two factors of digital equality and accurate observation have led Spacestor to equip all video consultation booths with Light Reflectivity Value (LRV) fabric to complement a wide variety of skin tones, ensuring equitable visual representation and providing a high-quality video experience for both patients and practitioners.
Today there is a strong policy push from the government to improve health care by increasing the use of digital technology . It’s a long awaited move that not only allows the NHS to adapt to the modern world but also one that goes a long way to improving efficiency and patient self-management.
In short, the time has now come to re-think how patient consultations are delivered. Unique drivers of change such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are generating new approaches to old problems and helping doctors transcend the limitations of face to face consultations. What now lies just ahead on the horizon is the opportunity to offer more flexible, cost-effective care that takes full advantage of all that virtual technology has to offer.