As I was listening to a seminar on racial disparities in colorectal cancer screening yesterday, the speaker brought up an excellent point about the importance of virtual empathy going forward in this new era of telemedicine. He stressed that we need to think of ways to integrate empathy into our virtual interactions with patients because you don’t have at your disposal that physical hand on the shoulder, or pat on the back. This made me reflect and realize that our primary tools of expression over virtual interactions are verbal and visual. It is more important than ever to offer expressions of sympathy, empathy, and to respond meaningfully to what patients tell you. You want to ensure that the patient knows you are truly listening to what they tell you. Besides empathetic statements, it is helpful to match the patient’s tone – if they are speaking solemnly, you want to use a similar type of voice to meet them on the same page. In addition to how you modify your interactions verbally, you can also focus on how you present yourself visually. This includes professional dress and background to signify the seriousness of the patient encounter, as well as adding human elements if the environment is right. I know several physicians like to show their kids or pets to their patients, which may aid in building rapport with patients. Facial expressions are paramount in building connections with patients; similar to matching their tone, responding to what they are saying with appropriate facial expressions is another indicator to show that you are listening.
Overall, I do think you lose some human element through telehealth, which is probably the key feature that is lacking in these visits compared to in-person visits, despite all the advantages of telehealth. I think as we move towards a more virtual model, we will devise and incorporate innovative ways of connecting with the patient while remaining vigilant and safe during a pandemic.