COVID-19 and the Doctor-Patient Relationship
July 16, 2020
The global COVID-19 pandemic has altered nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Unfortunately, the people facing a majority of these obstacles are patients with cancer and other chronic medical conditions such as mesothelioma.
Cancer patients know the difficulties associated with multiple doctor visits, unpredictable test results, chemotherapy or radiation side effects and daily emotional stress. The pandemic and rising case numbers have exacerbated these difficulties and challenged the basics of cancer patient care, including mesothelioma treatment.
These challenges have forced my practice and others to look for ways to improve the existing doctor-patient dynamic. One of the ways we’ve innovated to create something better than what existed before is our virtual multidisciplinary clinic for cancer patients at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Patients can be at home with as many family members as they want in a very comfortable environment. At the same time, they can see and talk with our entire interdisciplinary team as we develop a treatment plan tailored to them. Mesothelioma and other cancer patients get the benefit of expert-level care in a way that hasn’t existed before.
When faced with a population of patients who rely on expert medical care regularly, how else can we meet these challenges and transform the status quo into something better for everyone?
I believe that change starts with long-needed improvements to doctor-patient communication.
Improving Communication in the Age of COVID-19
Many clinicians receive training on how to communicate the implications of severe disease with patients in a way that limits fear, confusion and apprehension.
In the last few months, my colleagues and I have undergone additional training for maintaining that expert level of communication during virtual visits. Doctors should be able to deliver the same level of sensitivity and thoughtfulness in our discussions during eHealth visits as we do in person.
It’s more important than ever to provide this level of care to our patients during a time when feelings of sadness and anxiety are prevalent.
In my practice, I have found that the best way to open dialogue with a patient is first to identify and deal with their emotions. Without acknowledging these stressful feelings right away, patients will struggle to absorb essential information about their illness and treatment.
During this time, patients are more likely to retain details regarding their care when physicians deliver the information in small doses. Patients should also feel empowered to disclose their wishes during a visit, which can be more challenging to discuss outside of an exam room.
When patients feel validated and understood, medical care becomes much more personal and practical.
Physicians who can adapt to today’s changing standards and deliver this level of communication during a time of crisis will strengthen their listening and empathizing skills. This renewed focus benefits patients substantially and allows them to place their trust in cancer and mesothelioma specialists who have achieved new levels of wisdom and kindness.
Clinicians are dealing with heightened exhaustion and distress during the COVID-19 pandemic, but improved communication helps fight the challenges patients are experiencing in these trying times.
Evolving Doctor-Patient Relationships and Addressing the Fears of COVID-19
With constant news of the pandemic coming from an unlimited number of sources, physicians have a responsibility to provide accurate information as it becomes available. The impact of this is twofold: Patients get precise and factual updates, and doctors maintain an open line of communication with their patients.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the discourse between patients and physicians centered mostly around treatment plans and disease prognosis. Now, that relationship has the opportunity to expand into regular discussions that can ease patients’ fears about the pandemic and encourage them to reach out to their health care team more often.
Patients should feel empowered to contact providers they trust and ask questions about face coverings, medications, vaccines, social distancing and other concerns. Some patients may feel cautious about “bothering” their health care team during this time when they may be overwhelmed with a higher patient load.
I have encouraged all of my patients to reach out regularly. A side effect of this pandemic is the rampant spread of misinformation. Patients have a right to be armed with accurate and timely knowledge, and there’s no better source than the health care team they already trust.
The change in some practices, such as closed waiting rooms and the rise of telemedicine and eHealth, should not deter patients from seeking open communication with their doctor.
My team and I have made an effort to make the message clear: Health care may look different now, but it’s an opportunity to raise the quality of our practice and make medicine better.
With our virtual multidisciplinary clinic, multiple health care providers from different medical specialties, such as psychology and nutrition, participate during a single encounter. They bring all their expertise together to deliver a collective message, instead of the more traditional model of multiple separate meetings with different care providers.
This approach saves patients time and avoids parking, traffic and other common hassles of multiple visits. In more traditional cases, providers may not have communicated with each other efficiently, leading to confusing messages for patients about their treatment plans.
The virtual multidisciplinary clinic makes it easier to coordinate visits with multiple providers in different locations.
Patients should feel comfortable in the knowledge that physicians aren’t just dealing with the challenges of COVID-19; we’re adapting to them. And when everyone is back together, health care will be better than ever.