The pandemic forced surgical professionals across the country to come up with innovative ways to communicate with their socially distanced patients, and many turned to phone apps and online platforms to relay pre-op reminders, day-of-surgery directives and post-op instructions. Physicians East, a practice with locations throughout North Carolina, had no choice but to go virtual in order to keep patients informed about the procedures they were scheduled to undergo.
That doesn’t mean everyone was onboard with the idea.
“Our surgeons had already been resistant to using technology to interact with patients because they didn’t want to lose the connections they made during in-person appointments,” says Bobbie Lou Price, RN, BSN, CBN, nursing supervisor of Physician East’s surgery department. “But when we were forced to go virtual at the start of the pandemic, they saw how beneficial it was for patients and staff, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
The web-based platform Physicians East chose allowed them to create a patient education slide show, narrated by a nursing supervisor, that includes a virtual introduction to their surgeons, and explanations of procedures and the pre-op evaluation processes. The slide show also covers potential post-op complications and a summary of what patients should expect to experience during their recoveries.
The practice’s staff immediately noticed improvements in how they engaged with patients, who expressed a high degree of satisfaction in being able to learn about their procedures through an online class produced by the providers who would care for them. Some patients watched the class more than once, and arrived at in-person pre-op consults with surgeons prepared to ask informed, detailed questions about their care plan. Family members also watched the presentation, which helped them feel more involved in the care of their loved ones.
Surgical facilities across the country are reaching the same conclusion, says Geri Lynn Baumblatt, MA, of Articulations Consulting, which develops content healthcare providers can share with their patients and their families.
“Virtual connections are convenient and easy to start, but some providers are hesitant because the communication seems impersonal,” says Ms. Baumblatt. “Many don’t realize that these platforms actually make for a more intimate provider-patient experience.”
Surgery centers have multiple platforms from which to choose when it comes to coordinating and managing the entire episode of care without having to dedicate valuable staffing hours to the task. Chatbots place automated calls to patients before and after procedures to inform them of next steps in their care plan. Texts messages provide patients with links to online pre-admission assessment forms they can fill out at their convenience. After surgery, automated interactive voice response phone calls remind patients to be on alert for symptoms of complications. Information can also be sent to family members, so they know what to expect — and what’s expected of them — before, during and after the procedures of their loved ones.
Video conferences with members of the care team can streamline pre- and post-op appointments. Virtual physical therapy sessions that allow patients to do at least part of their post-op rehab at home are gaining in popularity. Patients can also take satisfaction surveys — and even pay their bills — using the technologies.
While use of the platforms are becoming more commonplace, the quality of the content they present will ultimately determine if they’re incorporated into routine practice, says Ms. Baumblatt. Whether a facility purchases a phone app with ready-made messages or acquires a web-based platform that allows them to create and customize content, the language must be easily understood by the patients.
“The messaging needs to be emphatic, presented in plain language and answer the questions patients commonly ask,” says Ms. Baumblatt. “Patients should learn everything about their surgical experience, from what they can eat the day before surgery to where they should park when they arrive at the facility. The communications should make them feel comfortable to ask questions about the care they’ll receive.”
Ms. Baumblatt says well-written messaging free of medical jargon that only another doctor could understand that’s delivered virtually is a much better option than shoving paperwork and forms full of technical terms in front of patients hours before their procedure, when they’re under duress and anxious because of what’s about to happen.
Pre-op virtual exchanges not only help providers determine if patients are healthy enough to undergo surgery — and allow them to manage their expectations and care if they are — they empower patients to decide whether surgery is their best option in the first place. After reviewing the comprehensive information provided to them, patients could decide to try more physical therapy instead of having their hip replaced.
“Patients who are given high-quality information pre-operatively through technology platforms are ready to make ‘go/no-go’ decisions,” says Ms. Baumblatt. “Surgeons appreciate being able to streamline the process of identifying appropriate candidates for surgery.”
Communicating with patients directly also ensures they receive accurate, up-to-date and relevant information approved by their providers. Controlling the information patients receive is important, because they often learn about procedures through online searches, which can lead them to questionable content posted by dubious sources. “Linking patients to accurate and useful information is preferable to letting them consult Dr. Google about the operation they’re having,” says Ms. Baumblatt.
She believes the lessons learned at Physicians East and other surgical facilities during the pandemic are clear: Tapping into technology to communicate with patients improves quality of care, and patients who appreciate feeling more informed about their procedures will show up for surgery prepared to have a positive experience. OSM