Digital empathy matters. Learn how to foster meaningful connection with patients during telehealth consultations.
What exactly is digital empathy?
Digital empathy is the ability to understand and share feelings in a digital setting and it is an important skill used by clinicians to enhance and humanise connection with remote patients.
Just like your regular, garden variety of empathy, digital empathy relies on a clinician’s ability to communicate online with compassion, cognition, and emotion.
Ever since the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, coined the Hippocratic Oath and secured himself a place in history as ‘the Father of Medicine’, empathy has been considered an important characteristic for doctors.
The use of empathy in healthcare settings has been shown to increase patient satisfaction and compliance, and also enhance a practitioner’s ability to treat patients. Overall, empathy is thought to have a strong positive effect on patient health outcomes.
However, the rise of digital technology has challenged a health practitioner’s ability to connect empathetically with patients during telehealth consultations. There are two main reasons why: First, the ‘online disinhibition effect’ – where people in cyberspace tend to say and do things they usually wouldn’t in a face-to-face setting.
And second, communication via video conference can make it harder to interpret non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language.
How’s your ‘webside’ manner?
According to a Telehealth and Medicine Today research article published in late 2021, the next evolution in telehealth will be a focus on humanising digital visits.
The ’bedside manner’ doctors use to build patient rapport during face-to-face consultations, will need to translate to the digital realm. First impressions count and within seconds of meeting a health practitioner during a telehealth visit, a patient will have decided if the doctor is trustworthy and understanding. The article authors have created a list of key elements that enhance digital empathy and patient connection during telehealth consultations.
How to enhance your digital empathy
Humanise your telehealth visits:
- Pay attention to video framing to include arms and torso, incorporating hand gestures and posture into non-verbal communication.
- Observe digital body language and non-verbal cues, and utilise the power of pause in natural conversation exchange to engage the patient during the virtual visit. Voice tone, volume, cadence and inflection also influence a patient’s engagement.
- Practice active listening, allowing the patient to narrate their story while encouraging dialog, and use the teach-back method to confirm both patient and clinician share the same understanding.
- Remember that time makes up for touch. In the absence of a traditional physical examination, taking the time to listen to the patient’s history enhances the therapeutic relationship and diagnostic process.
Empower patients, care partners, and clinicians with telehealth literacy:
- Invest in pre-visit preparation for both patients and clinicians. This may include a test visit for navigating the hardware and software interface, as well as upfront agenda setting.
- Address privacy concerns with patients and offer suggestions for safer spaces.
- Provide educational opportunities for clinicians to learn unique telehealth skills such as webside manner, health literacy skills, and advanced, clinician-directed, patient-performed virtual exam manoeuvres.
- Recognise that health inequities may be exacerbated without an assessment of a patient’s needs, readiness, and proper support provided in the context of his or her life.
Reimagine the continuum of care through interstitial care and alignment of personal preferences:
- Use a virtual communication technology to expand the care team across time and distance by incorporating real-time video interpreters, care partners, family members, or clinical consultants.
- Increase patient engagement by aligning care delivery with patient preferences and integrating patient-generated health data into chronic or complex disease management.
- Deploy therapeutics from the digital medicine cabinet to foster better mental health, preventative care, and wellness initiatives.
- Personalise the experience based on the needs of the patient and care partner, empowering them with the skills to decide on when a virtual visit or in-person visit may be appropriate.
- Co-design new telehealth quality measures that assess the experience of patients and clinicians.