Being a physician always has been a busy job. This is especially true for primary care physicians, whose goals encompass a broad range of care delivery tasks on behalf of their patients. As such, it should come of little surprise that there is a growing trend of doctors spending less than 10 minutes with each of their patients.
In essence, the doctor-patient relationship is nothing like what it once was, a notion backed in a new study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, which confirmed what any physician or patient could tell you: doctors spend more time with computers than they do with patients. In fact, computers handily beat out patients: medical interns spent 40 percent of their day with a computer compared with 12 percent of their day with actual living, breathing patients, according to the study.
It may seem like advances in technology seem to pull the doctor further from the patient, but that doesn’t always have to be the case, says Michael Klein, M.D., president of the American Pediatric Surgical Association, and a pediatric surgeon at the Detroit-based Children’s Hospital of Michigan where he is in charge of surgical innovations. Less than a year ago, Klein started using PingMD, a new healthcare app designed to restore relationships and communications between doctors and patients. For providers, PingMD serves as an easy way to communicate with patients and colleagues; and for patients and their families, the app serves as a direct connection to all of the family’s doctors, says Klein.
The HIPAA-compliant app serves two main purposes, Klein says. “At the current time, most of academic medicine runs entirely on text messages. Nobody pages anyone anymore, and phone calls are becoming less and less frequent. Of course, every single one of those text messages is illegal, because they are not sent securely. Yet it’s the best and most efficient way to run a practice.”
Secondly, all of Klein’s patients have smartphones with cameras. “I tell them to text me and send me a picture, and that makes them so comfortable—I automatically become the most popular doctor they’ve ever had,” he says. “When a patient calls an office, he/she has to listen to choices, and pick the wrong choice because no one answers anyway. The chances of getting a doctor to call back— even if you get through—are probably only one in three. So patients don’t want to call either because they don’t feel like they would get through or they don’t want to bother the doctor. But they have no problem whatsoever in texting.”
BRINGING BACK THE DOCTOR-PATIENT RELATIONSHIP
When Manju Chopra, M.D., began practicing as a pediatrician at the New York City-based Flushing Hospital Pediatrc Clinic, she noticed that after she had returned patient phone calls, communicated with her attending, and entered data into the electronic health record (EHR), she barely had 10 minutes to spend visiting with each patient. The world was changing, thought Chopra: patients were downloading apps and looking up their symptoms in the waiting room. She couldn’t bond with her patients, nor could she give them the undivided attention they deserved. She realized that the lack of technology innovation in healthcare was disabling her from spending sufficient time with her patients and was slowing down her practice.
The distinct negative impact this was having on the entire healthcare system was also readily apparent to Chopra: rising costs, slow delivery of care, patient dissatisfaction and physician fatigue—a recipe for disaster. Chopra felt as if she was trying to operate within a dysfunctional and broken system.
Chopra recognized that mobile technology could improve patient care and make the doctor's visit more personal, productive and efficient. Technology could allow patients and doctors to communicate clearly and effectively. All she needed was a solid foundation to build on—a platform for targeted communications between doctors and patients. She discussed the idea with her husband, neurosurgeon-turned-entrepreneur Gopal Chopra M.D., and together, they brought Manju’s vision to life as PingMD.
In just a short amount of time, Klein has witnessed the benefits of this app first hand. “It has significantly reduced the number of post-operative visits, and we don’t get paid for those visits. Telling patients they can get in touch with you whenever they want calms their fears, too. It makes them feel like we really care, which we do. I actually don’t get many ‘pings,’ but I do get plenty of texts. If anything, it makes us more popular, not less popular.”
While there are many people who frown on the idea of doctors and patients texting each other—mainly for security reasons—Klein says he can only rely on the technical experts and lawyers who have embedded the app thoroughly. “Personally, I could care less about HIPAA. It’s more important to communicate with your patient than worry about these [restrictions]. Most patients don’t care who knows about their information—they want to talk to their doctor.”
Klein adds that at his hospital, there are two beds to a room, and when he makes his rounds, he’s not allowed to talk to his patients about their information because the person in the other bed may listen. That’s unfortunate though, he says. “My patients, post-operation, would much rather talk to me in the moment rather than having a phone call or waiting until the room is private.”
Klein emphasizes that it’s important to remember that PingMD isn’t an emergency tool, but more for low-level situations that will help make patients comfortable and happy. “I use this to avoid unnecessary post-operative visits,” he says. “It keeps people out of a little community hospital emergency room where they will spend three hours and accomplish nothing. But most of all, it provides reassurance to the families, and that’s the best part.”