New Study Suggests Ways Doctors Can Foster Relationships Through Telehealth

Man talks to doctor on a computer screen during a virtual telemedicine visit.
The inability to see patients face-to-face due to COVID-19 restrictions has made some doctors feel like they can’t build a relationship with them. Local researcher Dr. Kurt Stange says that doesn’t have to be the case. [fizkes / Shutterstock]
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The increasing use of telehealth appointments during the COVID-19 pandemic has some worried about the loss of the doctor-patient relationship. A new study suggests ways telehealth can actually strengthen that bond and build trust.  

Case Western Reserve University researcher Dr. Kurt Stange contributed to the study, and said the pandemic has presented unique ways for providers to better get to know their patients.

“All the parts of good care that are about integrating care for the whole person – prioritizing what the most important thing is in the moment – have gotten organized out of how we organize health care to be so-called ‘efficient,’” Stange said. “The opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic is that all those efficiencies got kind of slapped aside.”

One opportunity to better build relationships that has emerged due to the pandemic is telehealth, he said. He suggests health care providers treat video call appointments like home visits.

“You’re seeing people on their own turf. That equalizes the power difference a little bit,” Stange said. “The patient is the expert on their life and where they are and where they’re living, and you get a little window of that, so take advantage of that.”

He added that telehealth is more easily accessible for some patients.

“We’re just respecting people’s need to get in, and how hard that is for some people to get in,” he said. “If you have to take three buses or take an afternoon off of work where you don’t get paid, that’s a big deal. To actually see people when they need to be seen and make that convenient, that’s a big way to invest in the relationship.”

Stange also said telehealth allows doctors to meet patients where they are, and make it feel like they are talking to a family friend rather than a physician. By seeing the patient in their home environment, he said, providers can better understand their health care needs.

"When we get these little clues from seeing people in their environment, just [ask] about that, using that context to help tailor the care to what’s important to them,” he said. “Or, use that knowledge to help make it easier for people to get care.”

Stange said building relationships with patients is important to enhance the quality of care.

The study was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Family Medicine.
 

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