Taking Anxiety Out of the Physician-Patient Dialogue

One of the most overlooked aspects of medical episodes and surgical recoveries is the anxiety felt by the patient. Is that shooting pain part of the healing process, or is something wrong? Am I supposed to still be bruised and swollen three days later? Am I on track, or should I be doing something about this?

Sickness, injury and recovery are complicated matters, and most patients don’t have the expertise to know whether a symptom is expected or not. It’s normal to feel anxious when you’re dealing with the unknown, especially when it pertains to your own health.

What’s not normal is having to resort to asking friends and family who may or may not have appropriate medical training, or turning to the all-knowing internet for advice. When patients have questions, they need to be able to ask their physicians — but for physicians that are not equipped with patient engagement solutions, that can be challenging.

Many times, patients that call the practice or on-call number will end up talking to someone who’s not familiar with their case, or worse yet, leaving a message. Is it even worth the trouble of calling? How would the patient know? Are they going to be bothering the doctor? Is the doctor going to think the question is a stupid one?

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My own experience

A while ago, I had an experience that made me think a lot about the relationship between the patient and the provider. During my recovery from a medical procedure, I began bleeding, and it seemed to be more than a normal amount. After some time, I guessed that it was not normal and decided to call my physician. He simply reassured me that patients always think there’s a lot of blood and that I’d be fine. Feeling put in my place, I took him at his word and did not voice my lingering concerns.

The next day, my wife and I went on a weekend trip to celebrate my birthday. That evening, during dinner, the bleeding started again and didn’t stop. I found myself in an emergency room in a remote town. After they stabilized me and dulled the discomfort with morphine, my wife drove us home at 3 a.m. through the rain, me writhing in the back seat and trying to stay calm.

This should never have happened and would never have happened if GetWell Loop had existed then and if my physician and I had been using it. My experience shaped the work that I do on GetWell Loop. 

The problem

When I called my care team with a question about my recovery, I did not have trouble reaching the right people. I wasn’t put on hold for hours or relegated to an automated voicemail system. Once I made the decision to call, I was able to speak with my physician who was familiar with my case.

However, I simply did not have the ability to evaluate the urgency of my situation effectively. That makes sense; I’m not a healthcare practitioner, but what doesn’t make sense is that I did not have the tools to help my physician make that evaluation. I could not differentiate a lot of blood from a lot of blood. And without the knowledge to know better, I did not have the confidence to contradict my physician. I already felt foolish for asking my question, so the last thing I wanted to do was to call back and double down on the same question. I became anxious about communicating further with my physician.

How many people feel the same way? Why is it so difficult to convey and receive the right information at the right time? 

Building the right tools

When patients speak to physicians, they often don’t know how to ask the right questions or to formulate their question to get the most meaningful information. That makes it hard for patients to feel confident in their questions and at times, for them to call their physicians in the first place. After my experience, I decided to build the tools that take the anxiety out of the physician-patient dialogue.

With GetWell Loop, a patient can post a question to his or her physician and care team on a secure messaging platform that feels familiar to anyone who has used the most popular social media platforms. The familiar, easy feel of the platform lowers the bar for asking questions — as a patient, you’re not bothering anyone, and you can consider your phrasing before pressing “Send.” The question can even be supplemented by a photo, if it helps clarify the situation. In my case, if I’d been able to send a photo of my blood loss, the physician would never have dismissed it as normal. 

The power of the daily check-in

Through GetWell Loop, patients receive pertinent questions about their recovery and symptoms every morning. This serves two purposes. First, GetWell Loop looks for abnormal patterns in patients’ responses and alerts their physician and care team if any concerning symptoms are discovered. Second, the questions set the context with the patient by informing them what’s important to look out for.

In my case, there would undoubtedly have been questions in GetWell Loop’s care plan around how much I was bleeding, which certainly would have triggered a symptomatic alert and made me very confident in referring to it as “a lot of blood.” 

Facilitating dialogue leads to better health

Most of us working with GetWell Loop have had our own experiences with the healthcare system, and as we tell each other stories, we identify problems in care delivery and then set about to solve those problems. Each new insight makes our solution better.

In my own case, it was all about my initial hesitation to call my physician, the doubtful response on the other end of the line and my inability to communicate the urgency of my situation. GetWell Loop makes it possible to have open, healthy communication between doctor and patient by empowering patients to ask questions with confidence and enabling physicians and their care teams to act on that information.

Clear communication is critical to great outcomes and great experiences in healthcare.