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COVID-19 and the Changing Nature of Patient-Physician Relationships

August 24, 2020
Posted by Sarah Bast

There are many ways COVID-19 has affected healthcare, but few have touched Pharma so impactfully as the sudden lack of face-to-face availability with physicians. I was honored to participate in a recent DTC Virtual webinar, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Point-of-Care Engagement,” alongside David Linetsky, Senior Vice President of Life Sciences at Phreesia. I was able to share our perspective. 

Healthcare providers are navigating new terrain and using digital tools such as telehealth to engage directly with patients. At PHM, we’re struck not just by how quickly this shift has happened, but how enthusiastically it’s being embraced, at least by patients. Prior to COVID-19, consumers across age groups had generally expressed willingness to utilize telehealth—57% in 2015 and 69% in 2019. Now, with the choice being made for them due to COVID-19, many of these consumers aren’t only utilizing telehealth, they’re having good experiences.  

At PHM, we’ve embarked on a massive effort to really understand the telehealth experience for patients and HCPs. We are listening to their voices, uncovering what they care about and what matters most to them, and doing it in partnership with out sister agency Insync and partner Healthline. And while the results are still being evaluated, some things already stand out:  

  • There is a tendency for physicians to overstate patient challenges with telemedicine and underestimate patient enthusiasm for it. According to the study, the patient experience is largely a positive one. This disconnect in real vs. perceived experiences represents an opportunity to help support HCPs. 
  • With telemedicine, HCPs gain new insights into patients’ lives. Greater intimacy allows them to see what was previously unseen. For instance, an asthma patient having an ash tray behind them. 
  • There is a need for standardization. Right now, Telemedicine is not fully established—each experience is different and these are new ways of working. Physicians are also having to create new habits and figure out how to work from home.  

Despite some challenges, our research indicates that there are some clear benefits. Telemedicine is strongly preferred when a doctor-patient relationship already exists, as a level of comfort and bond was already in place. Patients also stated that the physician went over their results during a televisit, rather than sending them a link to be reviewed alone. Physicians are making use of the screen and pulling up the patient’s results—a really significant benefit.  

Overall, patients are choosing Telehealth because it saves time and feels more personal. In-person appointments can feel guarded given the sterile office environment. They’re no longer in an unfamiliar place and long waiting room visits are eliminated.  

Of course, this presents a challenge for brands who need to find new ways to reach both patients and HCPs. Adaptability is important and as screens supersede face-to-face meetings, media will adapt, as well.  

As Phreesia’s David Linetsky pointed out during our webinar, medical practices are leveraging digital technology to support new workflows, especially contactless workflows even for in-office visits. For example, patients are now checking in from home or their car while many practices are using text messaging to communicate with patients. There’s a big uptake in things in like online self-scheduling and many practices are now screening and triaging patients in advance of their visits.  

Overall, patients are really experiencing many new digital forms of communication and engagement with their health care providers and the staff at their offices. COVID-19 has forced many changes in the HCP/patient relationship, and while not all will remain once we’re past this pandemic, it’s reasonable to assume new levels will be set for digital interaction in DTC.  


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