When Kaiser Permanente's emergency room wait times began rising three years ago, Dr. Dennis Truong and a colleague launched a telemedicine program to provide faster access to care for their patients.
At the time, there weren't many training programs for telemedicine or for developing good “webside” manner, which can greatly improve patients' adherence to treatment. Instead, Truong had to learn on the fly.
“We essentially created our own webside manners through experience and through inter-regional sharing with our other KP regions,” said Truong, telemedicine director for the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group, McLean, Va.
Like its cousin “bedside manner,” webside manner is a key skill for clinicians involved in telemedicine, experts say. Physicians must proffer an empathetic and compassionate presence to calm fears and provide hope for patients who may be suffering from serious or even not-so-serious illness. Medical schools have always included training in bedside manner in their curricula.
And that's not just because they want to make a patient feel better about an encounter with the healthcare system. According to a 2014 study published in PLOS One, bedside manner can have a statistically significant impact on patient health, affecting the incidence of obesity, asthma, diabetes, hypertension and osteoarthritis. It can also affect weight loss or blood sugar levels in patients.
But clinicians are going to have to rethink how they deliver this important element of their craft as medicine moves deeper into the digital age. Telemedicine is booming, with startups and new applications springing up constantly.
Approximately 71% of employers say they will offer telemedicine consults through their health plans by 2017. Investment is growing too; the telemedicine market was worth about $500 million in 2014, but that is expected to balloon to $13 billion in 2020, said Fletcher Lance, managing director and global healthcare lead of North Highland, an Atlanta-based global consulting firm.
That's why experts and consultants are encouraging physicians to prepare for virtual visits with appropriate equipment and a well-developed “webside manner,” which includes all the same skills as bedside manner but has a number of its own requirements. Just like during a traditional office visit, clinicians must juggle paying attention to the patient with filling out electronic health records and other forms. It's as important to put patients at ease in a virtual environment as it is in an office.