The move to virtual office visits has been swift and far-reaching. But are we perhaps going too far? I know of at least two physician practices that aimed to be completely virtual (with some exceptions) from the onset of the virus until January 2021. Why? As of this writing, the case count is far higher than it was when the initial switch to virtual visits occurred in April. Even with the promise of multiple vaccines, we are likely at least a year away from getting out of pandemic mode in terms of how we work, socialize, educate and entertain. We must commit to a new era of healthcare protocols that properly address COVID and other pandemics that may follow, but do not seek to eliminate or minimize the value of an in-person encounter.
The physician’s office may never fully return to pre-COVID days of mask-less patients in crowded waiting rooms, and walk-ins – and no one will lament the passing of that piece of healthcare history. Why was that even tolerated? But, when possible, isn’t a successful physician/provider-patient contact at least partially measured by an exchange of human touch? You can see a desperate parent and crying baby on a screen and ask questions to target or rule out certain conditions, but in real life, the parent is comforted by you touching their child and perhaps calming both parent and child in the process. Sitting across from an anxious patient, a touch of the hand or shoulder can say not only, “I hear you and I am listening” but “I’m here for you.”
As my physician-husband says, “Every patient has a story to tell.” These stories can be told virtually, and often must be, but not to the exclusion of in-person encounters. With the long-overdue advancement of compensated virtual care, physicians cannot allow a subtle but permanent preferential movement to virtual care. In certain situations, virtual care is the obvious choice, but in others, it is a poor substitute. Knowing the difference will guide parameters for successfully practicing virtual care moving forward.
And now to the COVID-19 vaccine. What wonderful news to hear of so many options being developed, with such high efficacy rates based on clinical trials and perhaps the beginning of vaccinations as you are reading this. (And a nod to the valiant efforts by Henry Ford Health System to that end.) Next to come will be public education aimed at encouraging individuals to receive the vaccine for their own health and that of their loved ones – and the greater good. This important endeavor will be done through public service announcements and multi-media channel public health campaigns. Some will tune them out, anti-vaxxers and those who deem it non-essential – or unobtainable- for their own circumstances based on age, overall health, income level, education, access to transportation (there go those social determinants of health again!) or other personalized – and sometimes faulty – decision-making criteria.
Despite the value of such public education awareness efforts, though, the physician and advanced practice provider community are certain to play an almost superpower role – as they have throughout the pandemic – in helping achieve COVID vaccine compliance. For many who heed the information shared on the vaccine, their next step will be a discussion with their PCP (virtual or in-person) on its benefits and side effects. The respect and trust afforded physicians and other care providers pays huge dividends at a time like this. PCPs can prepare for the questions now by planning to address the COVID vaccine on their website, in-office TV, and through handouts and posters. Also have some message points for receptionists wielding calls on vaccine queries that do not need to be advanced to a higher level.
Planning has already begun at both the state and local level to determine the distribution model for the vaccine. Be assured, however, that the 42 physician organizations in the state will be working through their local departments of health to determine the best methods for keeping PCPs in the vaccine pipeline. In the meantime, we thank you again for your commitment and compassion during this very trying year. Cheers to 2021 and the many good things it is sure to hold.