According to Duke’s Center for Personalized Health Care, a strong physician-patient relationship is the “foundation of clinical care,” with stronger relationships leading to improved patient outcomes. However, strong physician-patient relationships don’t happen on their own. Building a relationship of any kind takes time, and physicians must be intentional about connecting with patients to build trust and inspire open communication.
Providing quality patient care is hard enough in person. In addition to advanced medical expertise and technical skills, health care providers need soft skills to ensure patients are comfortable sharing their health concerns and symptoms. When doctor’s visits happen virtually, soft skills become even more important.
Tom Griffiths, co-founder and chief executive officer of HoneHQ, a learning platform for modern leadership, management and people skills, says that delivering care in person provides a “safety net” for health care providers with meager soft skills, because they can rely on patients’ nonverbal cues. For example, Carrie Berg, CPTM, vice president of learning and development at Teledoc Health, says that providers may pick up on patients’ anxiety levels through physical cues like restlessness or nervous tics. Recognizing a patient’s current emotional state through a screen, on the other hand, is much more difficult.
Let’s examine how soft skills training can equip telehealth providers with the tools they need to deliver high-quality care — no matter where their patients are located.
The Rise of Telehealth
The demand for virtual doctor’s visits amid the coronavirus crisis has accelerated telehealth, a trend many experts expect will continue. Melissa Lewis-Stoner, MSW, LCSW-C, vice president of product management for health and human services at Relias, explains, “With the uncertain nature of the virus and continual infection rates seen across the nation, telehealth may very well be a prevalent care delivery [method] for the foreseeable future.” Berg agrees, adding that while many telehealth providers knew the shift toward virtual care would soon take off, the pandemic was a “tipping point” that forced many health systems “into the world of telehealth.”
As telehealth rises, so will the demand for soft skills training in three critical areas:
Effective physician-patient communication starts with building trust. Patients “need to feel heard and understood and listened to,” Berg says. Soft skills training should address the foundational elements of communication, including active listening, nonverbal communication (which, in a virtual environment, includes things like looking into the camera and turning your video on) and building rapport to establish trust.
Asking questions like, “How are you feeling today?” or, as COVID-19 continues to limit social interactions, “Are you feeling lonely?” can help telehealth providers connect with patients during virtual visits, Berg says. Brandi Yates, director of career services training at Ultimate Medical Academy, agrees that communications skills like active listening and building rapport can help telehealth providers “establish some level of trust” with patients. Without this trust, she says, “you’re not going to be able to get what you need from the patient in order to have successful patient outcomes.” Instead, patients “will just shut down on you.”
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for empathy in health care, as families worldwide grapple with the crisis’ physical and emotional turmoil. As such, the “universal principles” of empathy, compassion and understanding are more important than ever before, Griffiths says. Lewis-Stoner agrees, noting that it’s important to “meet people where they are in their health care journey and practice compassion,” especially during stressful times.
While some people are naturally empathic, empathy is a skill that can be learned, Griffiths says. Immersive training simulations, including using technologies such as virtual reality (VR), are especially effective in teaching empathy. In a Stanford News article, Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford University, says, “Experiences are what define us as humans, so it’s not surprising that an intense experience in VR is more impactful than imagining something.”
With a lack of physical presence, virtual doctor’s visits may feel “transactional,” Yates says. Soft skills training can help telehealth providers build their empathic muscle so they can deliver human-centric care, even if from afar.
Like all health care workers, telehealth providers need to be agile in their roles. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact people’s physical and emotional well-being, providers must remain “adaptable and flexible” and “able to think on their feet” to deliver quality care when it’s needed most, Yates says.
The telehealth industry is an agile one, adopting the latest technologies and best practices for delivering virtual health care. However, building agility can be difficult for health care workers who, especially during a global health crisis, are already feeling burned out.
Microlearning can help make soft skills training easier for busy health care professionals. An article published by EdApp, a mobile learning management system (LMS) provider, explains that since microlearning can quickly be consumed in two- to five-minute bursts, it’s the “perfect tool for busy healthcare professionals.” Giving telehealth care workers the training they need, when they need it, will leave them better able to serve patients in their time of need.
Soft skills are often referred to as “human skills” for a reason: They enable us to connect with, learn from and lead others through the power of understanding. Training telehealth workers on core soft skills like communication, empathy and agility will drive patient-centric experiences now and long after the pandemic subsides.