It’s only natural that the ways and means of delivering quality healthcare continue to commingle and expand with technological advances. In particular, the slice of telemedicine known as “virtual visits” or “e-visits,” bring doctor and patient together through an online encounter.
There’s considerable evidence of positive provider and patient benefits in e-visit applications including cost savings and convenience. Comprehensive studies, such as Patient and provider satisfaction with the use of telemedicine, report “Results from patient satisfaction studies indicate exceptionally high levels of perceived satisfaction, often above the rates of expected satisfaction for traditional forms of health delivery.
“Results from provider satisfaction studies are also generally quite positive; however, data from providers point to higher concerns with delivery barriers and challenges.” In conclusion, however, the authors suggest “cautious enthusiasm.” [Whitten P, Love B. J Postgrad Med 2005;51:294-300]
But some observers wonder if expediency digitally distances the provider and patient, in part, and leaves patient satisfaction and quality of care at the side of the road. The headline from a Bloomberg Business overview article challenges: “The Doctor Will Click on You Now, but Can She Feel Your Pain in an E-Visit?” It seems that health insurers—a significant force in shaping care delivery—want the public “to see the doctor, just not in an office or hospital.”
“To cut medical costs and diagnose minor ailments, WellPoint Inc. (WLP) and Aetna Inc. (AET), among other health insurers, are letting millions of patients get seen online first,” Bloomberg reports. “In a major expansion of telemedicine, WellPoint started offering 4 million patients the ability to have e-visits with doctors, while Aetna says it will boost online access to 8 million people next year from 3 million now.”
What about physician-patient communications?
In an ideal setting, doctors suggest that patient and provider first establish a face-to-face relationship—although that’s not the case with most e-visit encounters. However, some research regarding patient satisfaction with physician-patient communications during telemedicine seems encouragingly positive.
“The quality of physician-patient communication is a critical factor in treatment outcomes and patient satisfaction with care,” according to a 2009 study. “Patients were equally satisfied with physician’s ability to develop rapport, use shared decision making, and promote patient-centered communication during TM [telemedicine] and IP [in person] consultations.
“Our data suggest that, despite physical separation, physician-patient communication during TM is not inferior to communication during IP consultations.” [Telemed J E Health. 2009 Nov;15(9):830-9. doi: 10.1089/tmj.2009.0030]
The adoption of telemedicine, e-visits and virtual visits is predicted to continue to expand—propelled largely by the anticipated cost-savings—there is no doubt that the discussion will continue among professionals.
As a result, the American Medical Association has published guidelines intending to shape how telemedicine emerges, and various state boards have been rolling-out policy statements for physicians in their governing area.
It’s important to recognize patient satisfaction as a vital consideration. Cost-savings and convenience are powerful benefits for the increasingly informed and tech-savvy patient.