5 ways to convey empathy via digital technology



The influence of technology on the patient-physician relationship has been the subject of many discussions and publications. While a physician facing a computer screen throughout much of the office encounter is a vision no one believes is in the best interest of either the patient or the relationship, empathy as an admired professional trait and a successful tool in medicine is gaining support among the medical establishment. The question as to whether physicians can learn empathy has been examined. The benefits (real or potential) of digital technology in revitalizing this human interaction and technology’s potential to convey empathy must be considered. I will attempt to place some of these tools in a bit of a new light.

1. Encourage patients to utilize the patient portal.

Stage 2 of meaningful use requires that 5% of Medicare patients receive information via a patient portal; this has resulted in little less than an exercise in compliance. True interaction via the portal is not taking place. The catch-22 is that the portals provided by electronic health record (EHR) vendors are the least costly, but also the least useful. Providers are not enthusiastic about portals for good reason. Clinicians are fearful that office workflow cannot accommodate the potential volume of digital interactions. They also do not have the digital tools necessary to make the portal experience as beneficial as it can be.

Notwithstanding these barriers, I believe that a physician who encourages the use of the portal with conversations focused on patients’ participation in their own care will be seen as empathetic. Stressing the fact that the patient is being given a tool that delivers information (even if it is only a lab result) portrays the provider as a partner in care. The patient portal is the starting point of introducing patients to digital health technology. If it is the portal which is closest to the patient’s care touch point, other technologies will seem less intimidating and more relevant.

2. Prescribe apps and websites.

The days of a physician’s rolling eyes at a patient’s mention of information garnered on the Internet should be over. More than 90% of physicians use reference apps to treat patients. The power of digital technology to educate patients cannot be minimized. According to the Pew Research Internet Project (2013), one in three American adults have gone online to self-diagnose. Physicians agreed with that diagnosis 41% of the time. Is this reason to tout the Internet as a clinical diagnostician? I would hope not. However, it does demonstrate that the Digital Age of health care has arrived. It cannot be ignored. In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service will begin accrediting apps to be prescribed in 2015. If one thinks of patient education and self-monitoring instructions as important for patient care, then the natural extension of digitally delivering these tools should not send shock waves across the landscape. IMS Health offers technology for the prescribing of health apps and analytics for apps. Clearly, obstacles remain for app prescribing to enter mainstream medicine, the most significant being quality assurance regarding clinical effectiveness and data privacy and security. However, there are some excellent apps from which patients can benefit. In the nutritional arena, GoMeals and Fooducate are useful, as is Alivecor ECG for symptomatic heart rhythm monitoring. There are also several good smoking cessation apps. Further, there are text messaging programs which have proved not only popular but effective, specifically the smoking cessation offering SmokefreeTXT and the prenatal care program text4baby.

3. Participate in social media.

In 2010, the American Medical Association adopted guidelines for professionalism in social media. Among 22 other interesting statistics on health care in social media, are these two: More than 40% of consumers say that information found via social media affects the way they deal with their health, and 60% of social media users are the most likely to trust social media posts and activity by doctors over any other group.

4. Have your hospital start online patient support groups.

There are relative benefits to both in-person support groups and online patient support groups. My mother was a patient at a major cancer center, and I tweeted asking whether they had an online support group, as my mother enjoyed the in-person meetings, which she could no longer attend. The hospital account, having realized the importance of such outreach, responded with the establishment of an online group the following week. This type of patient service creates a sense of health care community, which is invaluable to both patient satisfaction and provider-patient relationships.


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