By Diana Twiggs, MD
It is not an exaggeration to say the coronavirus pandemic forever changed the healthcare industry. COVID-19 changed the way patients interact with their family doctors or primary care physicians, but it also altered how they view the medical profession.
Thankfully, the worst of the pandemic likely appears to be behind us, but the COVID-19 aftershock is still reverberating throughout the healthcare system. For example:
More patients are turning to telehealth, which represented less than 1% of patient visits before the pandemic, but now account for 8%, according to the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker.
In its 2022 “Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust and Health,” global communications firm Edelman found that 55% of respondents “worry medical science is becoming politicized or being used to support a specific political agenda.”
Because consumers delayed care during the pandemic, patient acuity at our country’s hospitals has increased 10% from 2019 to 2021, according to the American Hospital Association.
Those three trends – increasing reliance on telehealth, distrust of the healthcare industry and patients delaying care – are not going away for the foreseeable future. But by taking a closer look at the lessons learned during the pandemic, our industry can course-correct so we can continue providing the best possible care for our patients.
Consumers and physicians have embraced telehealth’s accessibility and convenience
When conducted properly, the pandemic taught the medical profession that telehealth can make it easier for patients to receive treatment from their family doctor or primary care physician. Consumers discovered that all it takes is a reliable internet connectionand they can receive quality care in the comfort of their home – and not have to travel and sit in a waiting room.
Doctors also embraced telehealth because they were able to serve patients who were hesitant to seek treatment during the pandemic. But physicians also learned how effective it can be as a tool to better schedule and manage office visits, which could free them up to spend more time diagnosing and treating patients.
However, one of the lessons learned from the pandemic is that some medical practitioners cut corners with their telehealth services, which put patients at risk. Some mental health companies, for example, are under investigation for improper evaluation and treatment of patients, including excessive prescriptions for controlled substances. These services have been found to make unrealistic promises, such as receiving an accurate mental health diagnosis just by filling out a form or by having a 30-minute visit. As a profession, we need to remind patients it can sometimes be difficult to assess and diagnose a health problem on Zoom. A proper diagnosis and treatment plan requires a thorough in-person evaluation and follow-up over time to ensure the right care.
Inconsistent messaging during the pandemic led to consumer distrust
Trust is at the heart of a healthy patient-doctor relationship and essential for effective treatment. Patient trust in the healthcare industry, however, was shaken to its core during the pandemic because of conflicting, inconsistent and sometimes outright false messaging about COVID-19.
The good news is that 75% of consumers are satisfied with their healthcare, according to Huron Consulting Group. The bad news, unfortunately, is that Huron found that 60% of consumers say they would switch to another doctor if they trusted that professional more.
To build trust in the wake of the pandemic, physicians will need to spend extra care talking with patients and encouraging them to ask questions and be open about their health and concerns. We will have to pay more attention to explain treatment plans and goals and to reassure them we are always acting in their best interest.
The pandemic left many consumers stressed about their health and care
In 20 years of practice, I have never seen so much anxiety and distress from my patients. My colleagues are also reporting a huge increase in the number of phone calls and messages we receive on our online healthcare portal, often about minor symptoms or concerns. My colleagues in behavioral health fields are also seeing extremely high levels of anxiety and other mental health conditions.
When facing stress and fear, many patients delay care and place less emphasis on their overall health. Edelman found that 65% percent of respondents in its “Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust and Health” report said there is a “gap between ‘how well I am taking care of myself’ versus ‘how well I should be.’”
One of the most important things we can do as doctors is make sure our patients are back on track with their care. We need to encourage them to have their annual wellness visits and meet with their physician, especially for care that has been postponed as a result of the pandemic.
After a tumultuous several years and a shifting healthcare ecosystem, the lessons learned from an embrace of barrier-breaking technology, to a need to support patient-physician trust and a focus on self-care can help us emerge from this pandemic stronger and healthier than ever before.
Dr. Diana Twiggs is a board certified family medicine physician in Fernandina Beach, where she has practiced medicine for over 20 years. Dr. Twiggs attended medical school at the University of Florida in Gainesville and completed her residency at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach. She is a past president and former board member of the Florida Academy of Family Physicians.