Balancing technology, personal touch in patient experience

Yesterday at The Atlantic's Pulse summit, providers discussed the balancing act of engaging patients through digital tools without losing their personal, human touch.
By Laura Lovett
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When it comes to engaging patients in their health, it’s a balancing act between offering the latest technology and providing the personal touch of face-to-face care, according to panelists at the Atlantic’s Pulse event in Boston yesterday. 

It’s not always about uprooting the system, but about changing the experience to address the pain points, according to Dr. Michael Richardson, medical director of One Medical in Boston, a membership-based healthcare provider.  

“What we are doing differently is really reinventing the primary care experience based on what the patient needs. So what does that mean? Think about how you book an appointment. You call, you wait, they try to figure out where you fit in the schedule. Why can’t you do that on an app?” Richardson said during the panel. “We have in-house engineers that designed an app so that people can access us at any time. They can book their own appointments. If they want to meet with a virtual provider, we have a whole virtual medicine team that caters to them. So, we are trying to meet patients where they are and how they want to interact with care.” 

While One Medical is a fairly new primary care provider, older institutions are also grappling with questions about how to implement the newest technology, but still maintain quality in-person care. 

This question is top of mind at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), which has plans to open a new building in 2026. 

“As we are looking at that new building we are going to be leveraging the best that technology has to offer,” Guardia Banister, executive director of the Institute of Patient Care at MGH, said during the panel. “At the same time ... one of the things that created MassGeneral is that it was a hospital for the poor. … So there is a component of making sure that we are going to continue to offer a healing environment.”

Further, using digital engagement tools instead of a staff member could save money in the long run and enable doctors to have more time with patients, according to Richardson.

“I get a lot of time with patients. We can do that because of the model we have set up. Essentially we don’t have medical assistants. So that means we are able to save a lot on overhead so we can extend on appointment times,” he said. "So instead of a 10, 15-minute physical we have 40 minutes. That is a lot of time to get to know a patient.”

The use of technology has to be appropriate for the situation and the patient. For example, Richardson said that a virtual visit might be the best course of action for a 20-year-old patient dealing with a cold, but a phone call and follow up face-to-face visit may be the most appropriate care for a 70-year-old patient with a cancer diagnosis. 

But as patients continue to demand more technology in care, these tools can also have negative consequences if not used correctly. 

“I think one of the challenges that we are facing right now is the consumer-driven culture of technology. So you might be seeing a lot of advertisements for mail-order prescriptions. From a primary care standpoint, that is my biggest fear,” he said. “So for example, sexually transmitted disease tests. They mail out their lab tests to an outside vender who is going to give them a diagnosis say, ‘Ok follow up with your PCP,’ not [taking the] time to deal with the mental anguish that some of these sexually transmitted diseases [include]. Imagine being diagnosed with HIV through a mail-order system.”

Nevertheless, the demand continues to increase for these digital services. It is now up to providers to smooth the path and integrating clinical care with the right tools. 

“You can have the best technology and all those kinds of things that go along with it, but you have to have that clinician-patient experience that they feel safe, listened to, heard, their wishes are put first,” Banister said. 

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