Digital Doctors: How To Improve Virtual Bedside Manner in Clinical Trials

Patients expect their healthcare providers to be knowledgeable and informative. But they also want them to be supportive, attentive and comforting. Research shows that patients who receive treatment from HCPs with effective bedside manners respond better to treatment and are more likely to follow doctors’ orders.

Part of this bedside manner requires that HCPs treat patients with respect and as research partners in a move towards more patient-centric research. But as clinical trials grow increasingly digital, clinical trial managers need to find new ways to connect with patients.

In this post we explore the health benefits bedside manners can bring to patients and how best to communicate this approach in a digital era. Of course, as will be seen, regardless of the medium — in-person or digitally — the human touch remains important.

The Importance of Bedside Manner

Patients who feel meaningfully connected to their healthcare provider are more likely to engage positively with their own healthcare. And they are also more likely to follow instructions later on. “Patients don’t just want to see a doctor, they want to be seen,” says Dr. Brad Bowman, chief medical officer at Healthgrades.

That means HCPs must carefully consider what their patients need to hear and how to communicate these key messages effectively, explains Dr. Jason Luke at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Likewise, in clinical trials, trial managers must communicate with patients throughout the study, updating them on essential information.

Bedside Manner Elicits Real Concerns of Patients

Through empathy, health care providers can help patients open up to them. The result is a better understanding of their major concerns and needs and how best to meet them, says healthcare sector marketing analyst Anna Morrow.

This means interacting with patients on a personal level and providing them with sufficient one-on-one focus. According to the Patient Sentiment Report, 52 percent of patients want a doctor who shows at least one of the following traits: compassion, comfort, patience, personality and bedside manner.

virtual bedside manner

How You Say What You Say

Patients respond not just to what their HCPs say, but to how they say it. Social psychologists Lauren Howe and Kari Leibowitz have conducted research that shows doctors who are comforting and friendly can improve patients’ health. In other words, bedside manner plays a role in the outcomes patients experience.

The pair refers to research in which 76 participants received a skin prick test to assess allergies. Patients that were tested by doctors who told them their allergic reactions would start to diminish reported less itchiness even though no treatment was provided. 

While clinical research is usually more invasive skin tests, trial managers can draw the same conclusion: Assurances — said with a warm and friendly demeanor — can help patients feel more positive about treatment.

Demand for a Personalized Care Experience

Bedside manner refers specifically to the personal touches and empathetic cues HCPs deliver to their patients. There’s concern that the digital era of clinical research will make that harder to achieve. But digital trials aim to improve the patient experience in multiple areas, such as providing a personalized experience, write Deloitte Consulting’s Dawn Anderson and Matthew Hefner.

This includes reducing the patient burden and delivering patient-centric solutions. And it also means a shift in terms of behavior for trial managers. They need to treat the patient as a collaborator in research.

Seeing patients as partners is an essential component of cultivating a positive bedside manner. And this is particularly so in an era of digital trials as patients have greater access information as well as being more informed about their conditions generally. Digital technologies can also improve patient-centric endpoints by gathering and processing patient feedback, say Anderson and Hefner.

Startups Ranking Healthcare Institutions

Despite growing evidence showing that positive bedside manners help patients heal, many HCPs focus instead on the technical aspects of their roles at the cost of a more human-centric approach.

So for instance, medical staff will focus on correctly diagnosing the patient and treating them with an evidence-based plan, explains Dr. Paul Rosen, medical officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Of course, patients value this approach but they also want to be treated compassionately, respectfully and with dignity. So they want HCPs that will listen to them and show them they care.

While not strictly for clinical trials nor for assessing bedside manner specifically, there are startups that are trying to create services for patients that help to make them feel more empowered by focusing on patients as consumers. These include:

  • Amino, which collects data on doctors, such as how many surgeries a particular surgeon has performed.
  • Crowd Clinical, which aggregates positive and negative social media comments about hospitals. 
  • NarrativeDx, which sources patient comments and reviews for hospitals to improve patient engagement and treatment.

Looking to AI for Lessons in Bedside Manners

A common sentiment when discussing AI is that the human touch will always be needed, particularly when interacting with patients. Interestingly, AI is being used to train medical practitioners across the U.S., writes Aili McConnon at the Wall Street Journal.

Virtual simulations powered by artificial intelligence allows medical students to interact with virtual patients or assume the role of patient themselves and interact with an AI-powered caregiver. The goal is to instil greater empathy in young healthcare practitioners and teach them to have better conversations with patients suffering from conditions such as Alzheimer’s and cancer.

The simulated exchange provides students with real-time feedback and space to repeat challenging situations. McConnon gives the examples of:

  • Embodied Labs. This platform creates simulations for healthcare practitioners treating terminally ill patients, among others. 
  • Kognito. This company provides simulations for student healthcare practitioners and virtual patients, focusing specifically on motivational interviewing techniques to encourage patients to explore their internal motivation and how they can adopt healthier behaviors.

virtual bedside manner

Improving the Virtual Bedside Manner

Patients need to have better virtual medical experiences. Research from Deloitte Insights last year shows that only 53 percent of respondents said the clinician they saw virtually was as professional or knowledgeable as the providers they saw in-person. This means there is room to improve, write Dr. Ken Abrams and Casey Korba at Deloitte. Specifically, health care providers need more training in how to conduct virtual consultations. 

Abrams and Korba call this virtual bedside manner “webside manner,” and say HCPs should focus on being more empathetic and compassionate with patients. Virtual consultations should be improved in terms of communication too, in order to deliver personalized care.

Access Social Media Communities

Social media channels and networks have become valuable for building virtual communities. Patient advocacy groups and groups of patients with the same conditions are often active in these online spaces.

Virtual community building happens on existing social networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter but also purpose-built networks such as PatientsLikeMe, explain Sonja Erikainen, Martyn Pickersgill, Sarah Cunningham-Burley, and Sarah Chan at Digital Health.

But the researchers warn that these digital networks are not neutral. People have formed connections that will drive the ethos of the group and there are structural limitations too, depending on the infrastructure of the platform itself. Nevertheless, trial managers can access these communities and engage with patients by providing them with educational information and support.

How to Have a Productive Conversation

There are basics to bedside manner, regardless of whether interactions happen in person or virtually. The fundamentals include active listening but also the ability to keep the conversation on course without causing the patient to feel harried, says internist and author Dr. Bernard Leo Remakus.

Active listening suggests to patients that the HCP cares. It also creates trust between the parties, which in turn mitigates some of the patient’s fear and anxiety. 

Techniques for Building Trust

Developing trust between trial managers and patients is important, especially when in-person exchanges becomes less frequent due to increased digital tools and processes. 

An effective means of building trust is approaching it from a pan-organizational perspective, says Jan Oldenberg, chief editor of Participatory Healthcare. That means trial managers should focus on creating and communicating team-based foundational principles throughout the company and setting up opportunities and processes for patients to share their feedback. 

Building positive engagement and trust between trial staff and patients is essential to successful treatment. A positive bedside manner is vital but requires new considerations in the digital era, such as where and how these connections happen. Patients want trial managers who show them respect, listen to their feedback and treat them with technical expertise and personal compassion.

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