By Michelle Seitzer
If she had her way, Dr. Miriam Shustik would text all her patients and their caregivers.
It's the busy physician's preferred method of communication: you can see the message immediately, and you can respond in kind—or wait until later. You don't have to retrieve the information from voicemail, or remember to make a call back if you're not able to do so in that moment. You're also less likely to engage in the not-so-fun game of phone tag.
But HIPAA compliance makes texting trickier; the risks of hacking and identify theft are too great in today's digital age. While Shustik uses it on a limited basis with some family caregivers (who are aware of the risks), it requires a secure server. "I end up calling many people because it's the most secure," she says.
As one of the few physicians in her area who still performs home visits and provides geriatric care at home, Shustik is always on the move. She's communicating with dozens of patients and caregivers in a variety of settings. Yet as many of her patients are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, openness and access to digital methods of communication, like an electronic health record or online portal, is limited. "Sometimes grandchildren or adult children will contact me through the portal," she says.
Find What Works Best
Email/portal messaging is an ideal option for efficient patient-caregiver-physician communication, particularly when there is already a well-established relationship. That's the case for Rachel Yoder, a mother to many children with special needs and complex medical issues. "I very rarely call anymore and I greatly prefer it that way," says Yoder. "When I email, I know they can read it at their convenience, think about it, and get back to me when they've had time to make a good decision."
Shannon Puckett, also a mother to many special needs, medically fragile children, prefers email too, yet understands her family's situation is rather unique. "We have spent years establishing relationships with our care team," Puckett says. "They respond to our emails usually same day. I know not all doctors make themselves as available to all their patients."
While emailing your doctor may sound ideal, it might not be best for your doctor.
"The flow of information between doctors, patients and family members is changing," says Brian Petranick, CEO of IKOR, which provides advocacy & life management services for older adults and individuals with disabilities. "We expect to have easier access to information these days. Each doctor has a preferred way of communicating, and you should ask your doctor how they prefer to communicate with you."
Take Advantage of Tech
As patients, caregivers, and advocates, we have practical, valuable tools at our disposal—tools which can provide life-saving information to our physicians and care providers.
"All smartphones and tablets have video and photo technology built in. Use those tools to capture images of injuries, changes in condition, or similar," says Petranick. "Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words when trying to explain what happened or what you witnessed with your loved one."
In caregiving situations, vital information received from the doctor must often be passed along, and it's essential that its integrity remains intact. “If multiple people need to hear the information (such as when a doctor is providing information on a treatment plan), consider using technology to share information with others effectively," recommends Petranick.
Improving Communication, Whatever the Method
If you can't text your doctor, don't worry. Whether you call, email, text, or fax, Dr. Shustik offers these universal tips for improving the flow of information between patients and physicians:
- Be understanding and respectful of a doctor's schedule. "If you have a doctor who communicates with you, you're lucky!" Shustik says, laughing. But long hours are the way of life for many physicians, and because of the nature of their work, they cannot answer calls when they are meeting with patients. Can you imagine if your doctor answered every call that came through during an exam, or if he had to step out of a major surgery to send an email? If you absolutely need to speak to the doctor—and not an appointment scheduler or nurse practitioner—don't call during peak hours. "It's best to call before 7:30am or after 6:30pm," Shustik advises.
- Be clear: when leaving a message, state the reason for your call. When we have 500 calls to return, this helps us prioritize, Shustik says.
- Be organized: prepare a bullet list before a visit. When you get those precious 10-15 minutes with a doctor, maximize them by coming in with a clear outline of your questions and concerns.
Be An (Assertive) Advocate
Advocacy, education, and action further complements patient-physician communication. “Historically, we have been passive as healthcare consumers. It was commonplace to just follow doctors' directions without question," says Petranick. "Easy access to information on the internet and to others with your same healthcare issues have changed that. It is important to use technology to research your health issues, ask lots of questions, get multiple opinions, and most importantly, be an advocate for yourself or for your loved one."
Being an effective advocate also means taking responsibility for follow-up, adds Petranick. "You shouldn't wait for communication to come from your physician or healthcare providers. Be assertive in making sure that providers listen and communicate with you, your family, and your healthcare advocates in ways that make sense to all involved."
New to caregiving? Get a crash course in this post, Becoming a Caregiver—Ready or Not!
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