Whether you’re fresh out of medical school or nearing retirement, the idea of virtual consultation in healthcare might be new to you. How do virtual doctor visits work? Will you still be able to connect with patients in the way you’re used to? How can you take care of medical records, billing, administration and consent forms? Will your patients be nervous about receiving virtual care? Rest assured: research from the Canadian Medical Association into virtual care post-Covid show that Canadians are overwhelmingly happy with the practice – 91% of those who saw their doctor online during the pandemic were satisfied, and many of these patients wish to see virtual care options expanded and improved in the future.
Although many practitioners have had to quickly adapt to providing virtual care, there are more ways than ever to make the transition from in-person to virtual consultation in healthcare seamless. Here are some things you can expect from your virtual visits, and some tips to make the process of going digital seamless.
1. Patients Will Book Online or By Phone
Offering booking through an online portal, by email, or by text isn’t just convenient for you and your staff, it’s also something patients are looking for – another CMA study shows that 71% of Canadians want to be able to book appointments with their physician online, but only 9% of practices offer the service. If you’re looking to make the move to virtual consultation in healthcare, you’ll need to get your patients on board. Email or mail notice to your patients about the virtual care services you’ll be offering and let them know how to book an appointment – if you have a virtual clinic tool this part might be easier, since online booking can be made more seamless. However, even if you are using your normal booking system it is fairly easy to take things online. Just make sure you add a meeting link to your confirmation email, let your patients know where the meeting is taking place (online or in-person), how to cancel, and what to do in the event of any tech problems.
Older patients or those who are less tech-savvy might take some more adjusting. While Canadians are overwhelmingly on board with virtual healthcare practices, surveys show it’s people under the age of 45 who are most in favor – older patients might take some time to adjust. If you do have administrative staff, make sure they are well aware of how to help these patients with their technical questions. Processes that seem intuitive to you and your staff may confuse someone who is less familiar with the technology, so be sure to listen and adapt to patient feedback about your new systems and make them as simple as possible before putting them in place.
Tip: get a consent form from your patients when you email them about their appointment, so that they can fill it out before the call. This can save you time and keep you compliant with CPMA regulations!
2. Patients Will Show Up Virtually
Like any in-person visit to the doctor’s office, your patients might have to wait. It’s a good idea to let them know about this beforehand – while many virtual care services have online waiting rooms (including Zoom.us, Doxy.me, and specialized virtual clinic software) others do not have this feature and will require you to inform the patients of what to do if you’re not ready for the call at their designated appointment time. For example, if you’re conducting appointments via telephone, your administrative staff or automated booking email might let patients know to expect the call anywhere from five to fifteen minutes past their designated appointment time. While most patients are happy to wait, you do need to keep them in the loop so they don’t feel like they’ve been missed or ignored – something easy to do without the reassurance of a physical waiting room of administrative staff.
Tip: integrate instructions for your virtual appointment with an automated email or text message booking system. Letting patients know how to cancel their appointments or what to do if their doctor is late to show up to the call will help put their minds at ease before the session!
3. You’ll Need a Quiet and Professional Place to Practice
There are a few things you can do in terms of your environment and the way you dress in order to give your patients this same sense of security from your session. Dressing in professional clothing, wearing a white coat, and getting good lighting in your digital space are all great places to start. When it comes to setting up your new office, make sure it’s in a quiet, clean location without a lot of visual distraction. Close windows and doors and think about installing items like a white noise machine to keep external disturbance to a minimum, or use headphones so you can better hear your patient. Check your webcam quality and internet connection beforehand, and think about the decor in your space – it’s not a bad idea to move your medical school diploma or other degrees into the background while you’re operating your virtual clinic.
Tip: while you might resist the idea of wearing a white coat in an online meeting, your patients don’t – studies show patients of all ages are more comfortable seeing a physician who looks the part.
4. Let Patients Know What’s Going On
Besides getting their virtual consent, one thing you’ll need to do at the beginning of each appointment is let your patients know what you’ll be doing. Depending on how your virtual office is set up, you may need to look away from the webcam in order to take notes or view patient records, and making sure your patient knows why you’re doing this will keep them from thinking you’re ignoring them or getting distracted by messages on your screen. Small factors like these are something you might have taken for granted in a physical office, where your patient can see your body language and what you’re doing. Letting them know ahead of time reassures them that you’re still listening – even if they can’t see your face.
Another thing to keep in mind is whether or not they are in a private place themselves – virtual visits can be difficult for patients who need to discuss private medical matters in a location that doesn’t necessarily offer much privacy. Always ask whether there is anyone around off-camera, and if it seems like they aren’t getting the privacy that they’d like, suggest the patient get headphones or relocate to a quieter area.
Tip: putting a little extra effort into body language, eye contact, and communication can reassure your patients that you’re listening to what they have to say, and help ease patients into the virtual visit.
5. Finish Your Visit and Follow Up
Once your visit finishes, leave things off on a positive note by making extra effort to recap your time together. Be sure to address everything you’ve covered in the session, give them an opportunity to ask questions, and offer up any next steps. Most of this looks just as it would in an in-person appointment, however, there are a few reasons why this is extra important in a virtual setting – digital appointments are missing patient body language cues, patients can be more distracted outside of a clinical setting, and there might be additional administrative factors to discuss, like whether you’ll be sending prescriptions straight to the pharmacy, another doctor’s office, or directly to the patient.
Virtual care is missing the options for patient education handouts or pamphlets available in an in-person clinic, so make sure you and your staff have planned for this ahead of time too. Preparing a listing of weblinks or downloadable patient education guides to send at the end of your appointments could be as simple as having your administrative staff scan the paper materials from your existing practice into digital form.
Tip: when you recap your session with the patient, make it part of your practice to confirm where they’d like any prescriptions sent or whether they need patient education materials. These extra administrative items are easy to forget, but proper preparation can make your appointments run much more smoothly.
The idea of virtual consultation in healthcare may have been accelerated by the pandemic, but the research shows it’s here to stay. With a few adjustments to how your virtual doctor visits work, you can make the process of transitioning patients from a physical to a virtual clinic easy – for both you and your patients!