Redefining patient experience during a pandemic through technology

Photo by Daniel Sone/National Cancer Institute

The concept of patient experience has undergone a major transformation during the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenge, primarily for healthcare professionals, is how to provide human touch to patients, in a scenario where physical contact ought to be minimised, or even avoided, in order to prevent infection.

For medical and IT experts, this is where technology plays a vital role— filling in the gaps made by social distancing protocols, and augmenting existing medical procedures and technologies for a better patient experience.

In a panel entitled “Patient Experience in Light of the Pandemic” during the latest Healthcare Frontiers online conference organised by Jicara Media, challenges in patient care were brought to the forefront, alongside several suggestions to address them.

For Richard Lirio, the COO of Philippine-based Dagupan Doctors Villaflor Memorial Hospital, medical care has always been and should always be centred on the patient, pandemic or not.

“Patient-centred care is actually not a new concept. It should have been the concept ever since— the patient is at the centre, same as the customer is king. But recently, we have had this strengthening of the concept of (the) patient being the centre. So individual-specific health needs, and their desired outcomes are factored in, and are the driving force behind the decisions done by the healthcare provider. This also means they are partners when the care management is provided. They are partners to how they should be treated. And then finally, of course, it has to be more holistic. And it’s not just getting them (patients) well, physically, but also spiritually, socially, and other matters,” Lirio said.

“Infection control brought about a lot of challenges. Going into specifics, that means a hospital is a high-touch environment. And you will have to have that face-to-face encounter. That’s how it’s been done for such a long time. And with this pandemic coming in, that has become an issue for us. We had to make sure that both patients and doctors were safe. So the challenge is how to still provide the medical care without compromising the safety of both of these players,” he explained.

Technological assist

In recent years, technologies like AI, robotics, and machine learning have provided exciting new developments in the healthcare industry. During a pandemic, the availability of technology could spell the difference between life and death.

“To put it more simply, we want to do things that are better, faster, and cheaper for the patients,” noted Chai Ming Yao, Deputy Chief Information Officer of Singapore’s National University Health System (NUHS).

“We are doing mixed reality. So we are looking at the use of holographic technology, for example, in the case of a brain surgery, where we are able to superimpose brain scans, so that the surgeon during the surgery itself is able to use these predetermined brain scans to enable them to do more precise surgery,” he said.

The NUHS, according to Chai, has also banked on its teleconsult services to deliver patient care without losing the human touch indicative of face-to-face consultation.

“Even in the past, teleconsult basically reduced travel time, and basically increased the convenience for customers, for patients. But during the COVID (pandemic), the situation becomes really critical, because we do not want to allow COVID to affect the timeliness of patient care. And that’s why teleconsult is actually one of the key things that the NUHS has embarked on over the past one year. We have seen very, very good (uptake). So in a sense, the COVID crisis has sped up the digital transformation, because now our patients see the importance and need for teleconsult,” he added.

Looking ahead, 5G is also a promising venture in terms of seamless operation of systems and processes, Chai pointed out.

“Traditional 4G technology is not fast, and the latency is too high for things like robotics, even (for) mixed reality to take place effectively. So we’re looking at using 5G technologies within the hospitals. I think from the IT angle, we are looking at all these areas right to be able to deliver services better, faster, and cheaper to our patients,” he said.

For Wiley Zhang, Head of Video Collaboration, APJ at Logitech, medical professionals must be equipped with the best tools to assist in the performance of their duties, and factors like high-quality video are of primary importance.

“I think healthcare is very much about people interaction very much, not only in-person, but also remotely. Video, or more importantly, high-quality video will play a really important role (especially in) teleconsulting, and also possibly with the higher bandwidth supportive of 5G with a low latency. The core part is that you need to have crystal-clear video and photo so that you’re able to carry out all the things. In the past year and a half (when) the pandemic came, it’s kind of like a public crisis, healthcare crisis, and the pandemic actually pushed this industry more quickly into video-centred telehealth or (a) telemedicine-type environment, so as to support to a lot of different patients,” Zhang said.

Holistic experience

Just as technology continues to globally elevate patient experience across health institutions, doctors and especially hospital administration must also ensure that patients who have difficulty using gadgets and new technology are not left behind amid the digital transformation, suggested Dr. Muhammad Yusof Sibert, Director of Sultanah Fatimah Specialist Hospital in Malaysia.

“I think information technology has played a very important role, as many of them have mentioned. Telemedicine has played a very integral part. But you see, we have two spectrums of patients here. We have patients who are IT-savvy, and patients (who) are not so IT-savvy. The non-IT-savvy still prefer a face-to-face consultation, whereas the IT-savvy, they’re okay with their gadgets, they know how to take their own heart rate, their blood pressure, they all know how to do it. But those who want face to face, that’s where we have this elderly population who are not so IT-savvy, who still want that personal touch from a doctor. So I think this is the era where we need to impart minimal knowledge to them on how to use those gadgets. And yes, I know we are all now talking about 5G. 4G has already been in the country, but I think 5G is slowly moving in. And I think we need to hasten that procedure as well,” Dr. Sibert said.

For Lirio, now is the most opportune time to re-evaluate methodologies and delivery systems for patient experience.

“We have to now re-examine for ourselves, we have to re-examine the (metrics) for patient experience. This is really something new, not only for the doctors, but also for the patients. And if we were used to customer metrics where the nurse provides a lot of tender loving care to the patient, that is not any more possible if we are still under pandemic, so we have to look at the different pain points, as the patient uses these technologies. And usually, there are some that I can mention, one of them will be the infrastructure. Our country (Philippines) is not that developed when it comes to our internet (and) Wi-Fi infrastructure. So that is going to be still a problem moving forward,” he explained.

Meanwhile, Zhang noted that the hybrid healthcare scenario is expected to continue. Hence, the technology must be able to keep up.

“We are looking at a lot of different use cases, in outpatient ones, or home care— a lot of different systems all the way from the journey of the patient experience, and hopefully, caregiver experience, to get the solutions ready for them to be able to be in a hybrid mode, in a multi-channel mode. The key thing for us is to make it easy for integration, easy for access. There will be a lot of scenarios (where) we build continuously. Hopefully, that will be adding into the evolution of the digitisation of the healthcare industry. And again, video and high quality video will be so important for us,” he said.

“Now as to the question of whether we are prepared for another pandemic, I would like to think that we all are prepared for this,” Lirio added.

“What we learned from this pandemic is that we need to be flexible. We are not thinking that everything will be back to normal. What it (pandemic) taught us is that we have to be flexible, we have to be on our toes all the time, and hospital facilities can actually easily convert (depending on the need),” he concluded.