Bringing Human Connection to the Forefront of Medicine in a Technological Era
At Stanford Medicine 25, we believe human connection plays a critical role in patient care. But as the medical world becomes increasingly reliant on technology, how can we keep this approach in focus? As the following articles describe, listening to patient stories, honing in on emotions and cultivating empathy can set the stage for humanistic care.
California-based physician Jacqueline Baras Shreibati, M.D., explains that technological simplicity has advantages and can heighten listening skills. Her recent New England Journal of Medicine article, “When Low Tech Wins,” details how less reliance on video technology helped her build stronger connections with patients in her clinical practice. When telehealth utilization peaked during COVID-19, she discovered that phone conversations, rather than video appointments, gave her the unique opportunity to tune into a patient’s story: “Since I was unable to look at or touch a patient, the only ‘data’ I had were words and tone of voice,” she relates. “I became adept at active listening, listening for the intent and feeling in my patients’ voices. I paid attention to how my patients were telling their stories.” Her patients also seemed more willing to confide in her about sensitive topics—it was as if she was “on the other side of a virtual confessional wall.” Her experience underscores the importance of how a simple conversation can unlock patient stories that ultimately inform care.
Similarly, a Healthcare Finance article featuring Academy of Communication in Healthcare’s Laura Cooley emphasizes the power of human connection in a technologically-dominated landscape. "If we want to have a more humanistic relationship, we need to respond with empathy," Cooley says. She encourages caregivers to listen to the facts that patients present, but also their emotions. Understanding an individual’s unique situation is key to forming a connection and addressing their concerns. She says that taking the time for introductions is crucial: "If we're trying to create connections at a time when some of us are feeling less human than we used to, especially in healthcare, just having those micro-moments can really make a difference."
We encourage medical educators and learners to revisit Stanford Medicine 25’s guidance on preserving key aspects of patient care in the telehealth era, including the Tele-Presence 5 strategies that foster humanism and connection during virtual encounters. These evidence-based practices, outlined by Abraham Verghese and Donna Zulman, include preparation, careful listening, goal-setting, connection through story and exploration of emotional cues.
Humility is an underappreciated skill in a time of global budgets, evidenced based approaches, and cost-containment. The bright, well-read, talented medical students who may lack humility are not uncommon.
Patient-centered care is an important aspect of the National Strategy for Quality Improvement on Health Care. As such, healthcare institutions are strongly focusing on the patient-physician relationship and the patient experience.
The editor-in-chief of Medscape, Dr. Eric Topol, visited Stanford to sit down and do an interview with our Dr. Vergese for the Medscape One-on-One online video series.
Peter Conrad, a sociologist at Brandeis University, spoke of the rise and fall of the medical authority in the doctor patient office encounter in his many scholarly articles. With the internet becoming the “elephant in the doctor’s office,” the dynamic of medical authority has certainly changed…