Digital transformation is in full swing

With digital transformation processes in full swing, this is the opportune time to study and understand the virtual behavioral healthcare experience of patients, caregivers, and physicians on both sides of the transaction. A deeper, more nuanced understanding of the experience itself can lead to better approaches, efficiencies, standards, and processes. This can eventually lead us down the path of developing a set of best practices that patients and providers can widely share and adopt.

The pandemic has put virtual care in the spotlight, with a massive uptake in telehealth and other forms of digital engagement happening rapidly across healthcare. The benefits of virtual care include increased access, convenience, time savings, and decreased costs, to name a few. Given its relatively limited use until now, we can learn plenty to optimize the virtual care experience.

Patient and stakeholder engagement must evolve

Conventional approaches to delivering care are being challenged within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are undergoing an unprecedented reliance on digital forms of communication to cope with our current circumstances. This has encouraged (and in many cases compelled) providers to use novel and flexible remote engagement approaches, which of course, includes the rapid adoption and utilization of telehealth solutions.

Many healthcare organizations are facing unfamiliar territory, and the uncertainty about how to navigate this new landscape is only magnified by varying levels of technological competence. Gaps in consumer access to digital tools, different modes of use, and diverse cultural backgrounds to name a few. As a result, there are several real and immediate challenges in repurposing our care delivery in response to this transformed communicative landscape. But there are also opportunities to connect with and learn about our diverse patient populations (and other stakeholders) in new and different ways.

Virtual care can bring new insight into behavioral health

As part of our recent research study on COVID-19, we had the opportunity to sit down (virtually of course) with a pediatrician based in Chattanooga, TN to explore some of the challenges and opportunities faced by his practice in the wake of the pandemic and shutdown.

One of the topics we discussed was his practice’s adoption of telemedicine to meet patient demand in the midst of COVID-19 restrictions. We also talked at length about his personal experiences so far with delivering care and counseling to his patients in a virtual setting. In short, he felt that there would be many opportunities during this unique time for his practice to explore the use of virtual platforms to engage, educate, manage, and care for his patients. As a small business owner, he also noted that there was tremendous potential to create value in the long-term for his practice provided that there was “a mechanism in place to pay for it.”

The benefits of virtual care

The benefits of virtual care in terms of convenience and time savings are quite clear for both patients and providers. But according to this physician, the potential advantages don’t stop there. From his perspective, when parents are situated in their natural environment instead of the confines of the clinic, they are more relaxed, slightly less guarded, and “more themselves.”

A few short weeks after standing up his telehealth offering, he has observed that many parents are less stressed, less protective, and more open with him. He also shared that he has been able to get “more honest information” from many of his young adult patients who often find it difficult to relax or may be “worried about parental confidences.” He described how this could lead to higher quality patient histories and better decision-making on the whole. He went on to explain that one of the advantages of telemedicine, in addition to the convenience and ease it offers his families, is that it provides him a window into their everyday lived experience. “Getting eyes on the patient” in their lived environment ultimately allows for insight into some of the typical behaviors and routines that are taking place in the home and other contexts outside of the clinical context.

He shared a specific example of a sixteen-year-old patient who was having significant sleep problems. He had this to say about how a recent telehealth visit with this patient led directly to behavioral health-related guidance that was able to help his patient. “And, you know, during our telehealth visit, he was sitting in his room with his mom, and I just had them pan around the room with their webcam, and there was a total of six screens in the kid’s room. That got us talking about the potential impact those screens could be having on his sleep issues. So those choices they are making, how they are spending their time, what they are surrounded by in their environment, and how they are preparing for sleep can all have an impact on the patient’s well-being.”

Ethnographic approaches can help us identify facilitators and barriers to well-being

We know from our research over the years in the healthcare space that well-being (a state of “being ok” or feeling good or satisfied) as experienced in the home might be quite different from well-being experienced in the clinic or hospital setting. The tools of ethnography can help us identify otherwise undocumented and invisible sources of well-being and bring them to the surface. Likewise, they can help us identify potential barriers to achieving well-being. Once identified, we can use that knowledge to create new circumstances where there is a higher likelihood that patients can make improvements.

t occurred to me that when the pediatrician asked his teenage patient to “show” him his room during their telehealth visit, whether conscious or not, was very much taking a page out of the ethnography handbook. The fact is that we all use an ethnographic approach when we are attempting to learn about something. We ask questions, listen, observe, and sometimes we even have the privilege of participating or doing in order to learn. The bottom line is that when we can observe patients in their everyday lives, we can gain tremendous insight into how they experience health and well-being in the real world. This allows us to more accurately design services or patient experiences that create opportunities for well-being to be felt, cultivated, or otherwise elevated.

Making the digital leap of faith

The healthcare industry has been marching toward digital transformation for several years, but the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated that journey for many organizations. Using digital tools – telehealth, video conferencing, apps, online chat, etc. – have been options available to patients but admittedly underutilized. Many HCPs never really encouraged their patients to use these tools before the arrival of COVID-19, and patients have been slow on the uptake. As a result, few healthcare organizations can confidently say that they understand the impact of digital, how their consumers perceive it, or how they can leverage it effectively to improve health outcomes.

How do patients and other key stakeholders interact with digital products/devices? How do they understand digital? What is the significance of what others think about their use of digital? Does it matter what others think? What motivates them to use digital devices, commit to digital, and stay with it over the long term? These are critical questions that need answers as more and more organizations increase their commitment to digital. We need to study patients holistically, through a cultural lens and with an empathic sensibility to better understand their true needs, motivations, beliefs, fears, and hopes in this new digital reality.

In the coming weeks, we will be expanding on some of the principles covered in this post and explore some of the different tools we have available in our ethnographic tool kit to achieve more profound levels of patient understanding. More specifically, we will take a look at how digital ethnography can be applied in the context of clinical trials to ensure a more human-centered approach to early-stage drug development. Sign up for our newsletter for future insights on this topic.

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