Digital empathy in the time of telemedicine

July 20, 2022 / By Travis Bias, DO, MPH, FAAFP

In February 2020, less than one percent of all patient-physician visits were conducted via telemedicine. Within about six weeks, 32 percent thanks to the initial COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home orders. Health care, already decades behind most other sectors technologically, was dragged into the future. Was this a blessing in disguise? Will this amount to a blip on health care’s historical radar?  

If you are a patient, what has been your experience with telemedicine? If you are a physician practicing any form of telemedicine, how do you think patients would rate your “webside” manner?  

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to discuss the current state and future of telemedicine with Dr. Matt Sakumoto, a virtualist primary care physician and assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Dr. Sakumoto is fellowship trained in clinical informatics at UCSF, with a focus on virtual care and provider efficiency tools for the electronic health record.   

Dr. Sakumoto and I were colleagues during the first year of the pandemic, where we took care of patients almost fully through the use of telemedicine. Delivering primary care, testing for and advising on COVID-19, managing a wide scope of issues from mental health, to acute illness, to prevention such as screening for diabetes, hypertension and sexually transmitted infections.  

I saw how telemedicine could increase access for people with difficulty finding a primary care physician. Yet, telemedicine is far from perfect and not every telemedicine platform or payment scheme is created equal. There are some studies showing it may actually increase costs and utilization since we are catching folks further upstream from the stage of their illness that may have previously prompted a trip to their primary care physician, an urgent care facility or an emergency department further down the road.  

Plus, there’s the human element. Interacting through video is not always ideal, especially when discussing sensitive topics. In recognition of this, Dr. Sakumoto and colleagues have written about digital empathy, and you will get to hear him elaborate on this concept in our podcast conversation.  

In this podcast episode, we unpacked the many facets, and evolving tenets, of telemedicine, including:  

  • Leveraging a strong team for better continuity of care 
  • Closing the gap in telehealth training in medical school and residency 
  • Using time to make up for touch and as its own diagnostic tool 
  • Pivoting payment models to support the continued deployment of telehealth tools 
  • The future of telemedicine 

Ultimately, we discuss how we can do our best to ensure we connect sufficiently with patients and deploy the best of health care – through the screen. 

Dr. Travis Bias is a family medicine physician and chief medical officer of clinician solutions at 3M Health Information Systems.