Hu­man­ness pa­tients need is be­ing lost

Vir­tual ap­point­ments, phone check-ups came at an emo­tional cost for pa­tients

Cape Breton Post - - OBITUARIES/LIFESTYLES - LISA MACHADO

The list of the many ways that COVID-19 stinks is grow­ing ev­ery day.

Be­sides the toll it has taken on count­less lives, the pan­demic has also hit health­care sys­tems hard, not only push­ing them to the brink of col­lapse, but also forc­ing hos­pi­tal and clinic ad­min­is­tra­tors to re­think the ways they have tra­di­tion­ally de­liv­ered care. With the ar­rival of the virus, fam­ily care teams felt dis­tant as they closed phys­i­cal spa­ces and moved to vir­tual or phone ap­point­ments. For some of­fices, coron­avirus was the nudge they needed to im­ple­ment the telemedici­ne strate­gies they had been plan­ning for years.

While I like see­ing my GP in per­son, I am also okay with the con­cept of hav­ing an ap­point­ment by phone, es­pe­cially dur­ing a global pan­demic. Af­ter all, why take on risk when you don’t have to? Plus, telemedici­ne means that I can be work­ing one minute and get­ting med­i­cal ad­vice the next, all in the com­fort of my kitchen of­fice. So when my daugh­ter needed guid­ance on a painful rash – be­yond some tech­ni­cal glitches, like a bad con­nec­tion and an emailed photo that wasn’t get­ting through – I barely bat­ted an eye de­scrib­ing over the phone the strange-look­ing red­ness that was creep­ing across her leg. In five min­utes we had a di­ag­no­sis and a pre­scrip­tion wait­ing at the lo­cal phar­macy. Awe­some.

But then it was my turn. Ev­ery six months, I make my way to Princess Mar­garet Can­cer Cen­tre for a blood test, wait for a cou­ple of hours, and then see my on­col­o­gist who re­lays the re­sults. On days that I feel ner­vous, I find com­fort in know­ing that the span of time my stom­ach churns will be a mere few hours. Plus, if any­thing is wrong, he is right in front of me to an­swer my ques­tions, tell me about the next steps, and give me a hug should I need it. And, as any­one who has ever re­ceived scary health news would know, it can be weirdly cathar­tic to search your spe­cial­ist’s face for clues that you are, in fact, go­ing to be okay.

I guess I have taken the com­fort of this process for granted over the last 12 years be­cause this week, when I had blood taken on Mon­day and then, be­cause of COVID19 re­stric­tions, had to wait un­til Tues­day for a call to dis­cuss the re­sults, well, I wasn’t feel­ing so jazzed about the short com­mute. In fact, the wait strangely re­minded me of how I felt in the early days of my di­ag­no­sis, when test re­sults were in­di­ca­tions of liv­ing or dy­ing. It was like the added hours made room for a lit­tle bit of anx­i­ety mixed with that nau­se­at­ing ‘what if’ feel­ing. There’s al­ways a chance that some­thing is not right – and as it turns out, it’s hard to wait to find out.

What’s strange about this re­ac­tion is that while I may have to wait to speak to my spe­cial­ist, I don’t have to wait for re­sults. Through the Univer­sity Health Net­work’s pa­tient por­tal, myUHN, I can look up test re­sults old and new. I can see graphs that show the trends over the years. So within hours of Mon­day’s test, my email in­box was flooded with the var­i­ous blood re­ports, sent one by one un­til the early evening.

But here’s the thing, I mostly only give them a skim.

I re­al­ize how crazy that might sound. Af­ter all, I work with peo­ple who live with can­cer and their fam­i­lies, help­ing them get the right care, ed­u­cat­ing them on drug ac­cess and their dis­ease. I sup­port pa­tient por­tals.

I be­lieve that pa­tients should have the op­tion to ac­cess their re­ports. I also sup­port the no­tion that ac­cess to per­sonal records im­proves out­comes, al­lows pa­tients to be­come ex­perts in their own care and em­pow­ers them to mon­i­tor their health like their life de­pended on it. Some­times they catch lit­tle things that have been missed, like a for­got­ten re­fer­ral. Other times, the over­sight is big­ger and life-chang­ing, like a mis­di­ag­no­sis. There’s no ques­tion that on­line ac­cess to per­sonal health in­for­ma­tion shifts power to the pa­tient – where it should be, of course. This is our life, af­ter all.

At the same time, it’s im­por­tant not to lose sight of the value of a face-to-face sit down with a doc­tor. Es­pe­cially if they – and this sounds dra­matic, but it’s true – hold your life in their hands. Vir­tual and phone vis­its not only gloss over the hu­man touch of the doc­tor-pa­tient re­la­tion­ship, but also po­ten­tially miss crit­i­cal in­di­ca­tors of well-be­ing.

There’s no ques­tion tech­nol­ogy plays a crit­i­cal role in em­pow­er­ing pa­tients, and though it took a deadly virus to fully em­brace vir­tual care, that we have seen suc­cess­ful con­nec­tions be­tween pa­tients and their fam­i­lies to their health­care teams dur­ing a cri­sis shows an abil­ity to adapt and evolve when it mat­ters most.

123RF

Vir­tual and phone ap­point­ments miss the hu­man as­pect of in­per­son ap­point­ments.

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