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Making healthcare empathetic again

By Thomas Swanson, Head of Healthcare Industry Strategy, Adobe

Ask someone about modern healthcare and you’re likely to receive a predictable response. Despite remarkable advances in technology—and the ability for doctors to diagnose and treat ailments in ways that were once unimaginable—the system is too often impersonal and inflexible. 

Whether it’s perception or reality, this is a very real problem. And it’s in sharp contrast to the way medicine was practiced even a half a century ago. At that time, healthcare felt more personalized and empathetic because doctors visited patients in their own homes and people knew the nurses and doctors that treated them when they visited a medical clinic or hospital.

Yet, thanks to advances in technology and a greater sense of urgency driven by the pandemic, the old-fashioned house call is coming back. According to McKinsey & Company, telehealth is poised to become a $250 billion segment of the overall healthcare marketplace. Already, it’s changing the way healthcare professionals—physicians, nurses, therapists, pharmacists and others—interact with patients. 

A focus on value

Telehealth isn’t new but it became mainstream due to limited access to medical facilities and the need to adapt to infection risks during the pandemic. According to McKinsey & Company, telehealth use initially increased 78X from the pre-COVID-19 baseline in February 2020. Even as access to medical facilities has increased, telehealth is here to stay. Even as hospitals and clinics have reopened to some extent, telehealth use remains 38x higher than pre-pandemic. McKinsey & Company reports that up to 60% of consumers are interested in broader virtual health solutions, including lower-cost virtual-first health plans that include telehealth as a primary feature.

Telehealth is changing healthcare. Not only are patients able to get a more empathetic experience as a result of the convenience and transparency of telehealth, but they also now have more access with less stigma. People don’t have to drive long distances (especially rural or underserved communities) or sit in waiting rooms and worry about the potential stigma of being seen in a doctor’s office. Through telehealth these patients can now seek help from the privacy of their own homes, making it easier to prioritize mental health as well as physical health. 

Return of the house call

At first thought, it may seem counterintuitive to toss even more technology at medicine. But consumer experiences are increasingly defined by convenience in everything from shopping and food delivery services to banking and ride-sharing. The right combination of technologies creates a more compelling, engaging and meaningful experience. It’s possible to create value for all.

Today, about 32% of medical appointments take place online. In the Medicare space, only about 0.1% of primary care visits occurred online prior to March 2020, according to a June 2021 Adobe Econsultancy report, The Future of Digital Healthcare. Today the figure stands at nearly half (45.9%). Not only is telehealth helping providers manage care, but it’s also incredibly appealing to patients. They can access healthcare professionals on their own terms.

Consider: a conventional visit to the doctor requires time to prepare, drive to the clinic, sit in a waiting room and then perhaps wait again in an exam room, sometimes without even a diagnosis. One study found that the average in-person visit requires just over 2 hours, and it may necessitate a need to take off work. Remarkably, the actual time spent with a doctor may last only about 10 to 15 minutes. As a result, patients often feel rushed and even neglected. 

By contrast, telemedicine patients can connect from anywhere and everywhere using a smartphone, tablet or personal computer. By removing the preparation, commute and wait time, a patient will likely perceive the interaction as more convenient and personal. Yet, there’s also evidence that telehealth actually improves the length and quality of visits. 

Doctors typically spend about 20 minutes with patients for online appointments. More telling: Deloitte reports that 90% of consumers agree that virtual care is beneficial in terms of increased access, communication, and satisfaction.

A healthier picture emerges

Yet it isn’t only the ability to meet with doctors, nurses and psychologists through video chat that’s making healthcare more personal. Connected devices—think Apple Watches, Fitbits, smart scales, thermometers, blood oximeters, blood pressure devices and more—are proving transformative. 

At the minimum, it’s possible to take readings at home and report them to a practitioner during a video appointment. This is already fueling an uptick in telehealth. 

Yet there’s also the ability to track health and fitness in broader and deeper ways—and even view an electronic medical record through an app like Apple Health. The next step is for more relaxed regulatory hurdles for healthcare data to take shape. At that point, medical data can truly become a two-way street.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, data collected by devices will be sent to a doctor, and data collected by a healthcare provider will be sent to a patient, making it easier for people to take more active roles in managing their own health and wellness.

Combined with video appointments, a far more sophisticated and personalized healthcare framework becomes possible. Instead of a blunt-force one-size-fits-many approach, physicians will have a far more accurate picture of how a person is living and be equipped to develop a personalized health and medical plan.

Of course, in person medical care isn’t going away. There are many tasks that require clinics, labs and offices. Yet healthcare, like other industries, will be forced to adopt a more customer-centric approach over the coming months and years. 

The ability to incorporate video appointments and connected digital data is nothing less than revolutionary. Drawing on the best qualities of physical and digital interactions, these technologies enable greater personalization, customization and empathy—while allowing healthcare providers to focus their time more efficiently and effectively.

Yes, the concept of doctors visiting patients in their homes is clearly making a comeback. Done right, there are enormous benefits for all.