A Q&A with Kim Garriott, Principal Consultant, Healthcare Strategies, for Logicalis Healthcare Solutions

Millennials comfortable with technology are leading the charge into the world of telemedicine, saving themselves countless hours in crowded waiting rooms only to get the same diagnosis and prescription they can get from the comfort of their own homes right from their device of choice.

However, the real tipping point for success in telehealth is yet to come as large employers fully embrace its cost- and time-saving benefits for employees, a trend already underway.  As a result, savvy healthcare CIOs are preparing their organizations now for an increased demand for telehealth services.  While discussions center around the technology that will offer both the organization and its practitioners the solution they need, less attention is being paid to one of the most critical factors in the implementation’s success: the patient’s user experience (UX).  According to Kim Garriott, Principal Consultant, Healthcare Strategies, for Logicalis Healthcare Solutions, it’s not enough to simply choose and implement the technology; CIOs, practitioners and administrators must create an online environment that rivals the attention-to-detail they’ve given to their physical office space.

Q: If patients are logging in online, don’t they realize the “experience” will be different?

A: Of course, but the more familiar the experience, the more likely they are to use it again.  One of the most important things healthcare organizations should consider up front, before they even move into discussions about technology, is what kind of UX they want to provide for their telehealth patients. This is something that an experienced healthcare solution provider should both mention to the healthcare CIO and help the organization’s team map out. If the entire telehealth experience doesn’t feel comfortable to the patient, the best technology in the world won’t make it a success.

Q: What are some of the things healthcare organizations should consider when planning their telemedicine environment?

A: The first thing they need to do is focus on first impressions.  When people enter a doctor’s office or hospital, their first experience with that provider is usually in the waiting room.  Often, there are televisions running loops of educational healthcare videos. There are handouts on tables and a receptionist to speak with.  Why should the virtual world be any different? When planning a telehealth solution, it’s important to think through the experience that each patient will have from the time they make an appointment until their visit is complete, and that includes the few minutes that may transpire between the time they sign on until the time the doctor sees them.

Q: So you’re talking about creating a virtual waiting room, correct?

A: Absolutely. And it’s important to determine what that waiting room will look and feel like to the patient.  For example, when the patient signs on for a visit, is the screen blank and the patient left to multitask, wondering if they’ve been disconnected? Or is there a lively virtual waiting room with information available while they wait? This first impression sets the stage for the entire visit and may determine whether or not the patient embraces or rejects telemedicine as a whole.

Q: How long is an acceptable wait time in a virtual waiting room?

A: That’s a great question, and it’s very different from what is acceptable in person.  Think about the time you spend on hold waiting for a customer service rep to answer a phone call – how annoyed do you get after just a few minutes have transpired? The virtual wait time should be kept to a bare minimum – no more than five minutes as a rule of thumb.  We all understand that doctors’ schedules can change throughout the day, but people who are sitting in front of a computer screen really have nowhere else to go and very little else they can do while they wait.  Virtual appointments should start as close to on time as possible, and patients should not be left in a virtual waiting room with no communication for more than a few minutes at most. The same etiquette that applies to a conference call would apply to patients in a virtual waiting room; you wouldn’t leave an important client on hold waiting for you to show up for a conference call, right? Doctors should extend the same courtesy to their online patients who are, after all, their clients.

Q: What about the encounter with the doctor – what kind of forethought needs to be given to that environment?

A: The physical location where the consults take place should give the patient a sense of security and safety. Consider placing the physician’s endpoint in the doctor’s office, with an orderly bookshelf filled with medical journals behind the physician, or perhaps in an examination room with the exam table located directly behind the doctor’s seat and his or her framed credentials placed purposefully within sight.  If patient consults take place in a pharmacy or other clinical setting, the same holds true; the patient’s endpoint should be in a comfortable, nicely appointed setting. In telehealth’s earliest days, many televisits took place with patients sitting in a stark, white, uninviting, sterile cubby with nothing more than a workstation and a chair. This kind of environment is not conducive to an open and personal discussion. The idea is to give the patient confidence in both the process and the doctor, and to make the televisit look and feel as similar to a face-to-face examination as possible.

Q: What level of noise is acceptable in the background?

A: None! When you’re in an exam room in person, you hear virtually nothing other than the doctor opening the door. The same should hold true in a televisit whether that takes place in the physician’s office, an exam room or in a local pharmacy. Never locate a telehealth solution where there may be distractions for either the patient or doctor while they talk. The environment should be completely quiet – all background noise should be eliminated so both parties can focus 100 percent of their attention on their interaction.

Q: Does the practitioner need to be in a dedicated, enclosed room when the telehealth visit takes place?

A: Ideally, yes. Privacy is as important online as it is in the examination room.  Whether a visit takes place in person or online, patients may need to disrobe to show a condition or injury to the doctor; they won’t feel comfortable unless their virtual exam room feels very private. Online patients expect – and deserve – the same courtesies as those being treated in person, an important consideration when deciding where to locate a telehealth endpoint.

Q: Does it matter what the practitioner is wearing during a telehealth visit? After all, it’s their expertise that counts, not their clothes, right?

A: Yes and no.  Yes, it’s their expertise that matters most.  But what they wear is actually very important. The way the doctor looks may influence how the patient feels about the overall experience, particularly so with those new to telemedicine. Therefore, practitioners should always “dress for success,” wearing what they normally wear to work – whether that’s a suit and tie or a lab coat – in front of the camera.

Q: Any other advice?

A: It’s important to look the patient in the eye. When patients and doctors interact in person, body language plays an important role; doctors may look at a chart while speaking to the patient, but the way they move and hold their bodies still says, “I’m paying attention.” Those nuances are lost in the virtual world, so it’s critical to make eye contact with the patient, and that means looking into the camera, not staring at the patient’s image on the screen.  It may feel unnatural at first, but it will give the patient a sense of connectedness with the doctor even though they may be miles apart.

Q: Do you think patients will ever feel as comfortable visiting their doctor online as they do in person?

A: Absolutely – and particularly so for millennials.  They are already accustomed to doing so much more online than earlier generations are, so they will adapt quickly and easily.  However, even older adults who have a basic understanding of technology can appreciate the convenience and flexibility of a televisit. The key to making patients of all ages comfortable is to minimize the differences between practicing telemedicine and simply practicing medicine.  For telehealth to succeed, the two must become one.

Want to learn more? Read a blog about the signs that point to a telehealth tipping point, then explore the telehealth page on the Logicalis Healthcare Solutions website. If America’s youth are driving the adoption of telemedicine, healthcare providers that are not yet catering to the younger patient demographic with telehealth options may be falling behind. But be careful, there are no shortcuts on the road to telehealth; in fact, Logicalis experts say there is a specific formula for success. To learn about this formula and the nine steps necessary for a successful telehealth implementation, download the Logicalis white paper, How to Design and Implement a Successful Telehealth Program.”