When Virtual Reality Becomes Reality

Written by Ashok Bhattacharya M.D., FRCP(C)

March 23 2020, 1:00pm

I was sitting across from my patient watching the words escape from her mouth as she inspired to make them. Then she exhaled…no mask, no gloves, no gowns. I was more than 6 feet from her face. I was listening, I really was, but there was something in the back of my mind. What if she has COVID? I was ‘wiping down,’ and had a few bottles of Purell salvaged from the box the Ministry of Health sent during the 2003 SARS crisis. I felt like a lonely soldier, low on ammunition, nervously defending a post as the enemy closes in. I couldn’t see or hear this foe—I could feel it. I should stay…but should I run? Dedicated doctors often suffer from presenteeism. I stayed.

The Practice

I have been practicing psychotherapy since 1986. I graduated in 1989 from the University of Toronto in the specialty of Psychiatry. The 1980’s marked the end of the dominance of psychoanalytic theory and the explosive beginnings of the biological revolution spearheaded by Prozac. For the first time, patients were asking to be placed on an anti-depressant: an SSRI. The arm-twisting efforts to encourage compliance with the tricyclic antidepressants were antiquated.  The vicissitudes of the mind had become the chemicals of the brain.

Setting up my practice was easy; I just opened the doors to my moonlighting practice a little wider. In two weeks, I was full and had more referrals than I could cope with. I started out doing 60-hour weeks. I know, this is a recipe for burnout. Since 2014, I have been presenting at conferences on the topic of burnout. By the time COVID-19 hit, my regular caseload was 45 hours a week. I see a lot of couples [Oakville has a high divorce rate], victims of PTSD, and depressed/anxious clients raging in age from 20-80 years old.  Being a psychiatrist is the only career I seriously considered. It’s the only reason I went to medical school. I love my job. I know that sounds cliché, but it never ceases to amaze me how you can aid a person by assisting them to alter their narrative. Yes, I am a psychotherapist at heart.

March 26 2020, 6:00pm

My patient emailed me, “I have a high fever and a cough.” She’d been tested. “I won’t know the result for a week.” My denial crumbled like a wall of salt being hit by a tidal wave. I realized my post was already surrounded, I had run out of ammunition, and the invisible enemy was here. “Scotty, beam me up!” There was no Scotty; there was virtual care. That was the last time I saw a patient in my office. I was scared, and I felt like a fool. I had put myself in this place. I’m the doctor! How could I put my patients and myself at risk? I felt shame. (Her test was negative. I’d dodged a bullet.).

Virtual Platforms

I applied to OTN to use the site to conduct eVisits with my patients. On March 23 2020, I downloaded Doxy.me, one of the virtual care tools curated by OntarioMD on OntarioMD.News. Luckily, my tech-savvy daughter was visiting, so she could help her old dad with the inevitable stupefying moments of learning a new computer technology. Incidentally, she lives in Italy and was stuck in Ontario during Italy’s worst times with COVID. She has since managed to return to Italy safely.

The Learning Curve

I was one of those ignorant die-hard believers in face-to-face therapy. Previously, if someone told me they had a ‘virtual session,’ I dismissed it as an irrelevant experience that couldn’t possibly replace a three dimensional ‘in the room’ session. I was utterly and completely wrong. The virtual experience became easy once the technology became familiar.

Advantages of Virtual Care

  • Patients can see me in the comfortable surroundings of their home. They are more relaxed, they haven’t had to commute, they don’t need to find a parking spot, and are ready for the session immediately.
  • Patients seem more motivated; like me, they have to work a little harder to make an impression on a little screen. It captivates them. They are also less intimidated by the ‘doctor’s office’ vibe. Their waiting room is their own familiar surroundings. They don’t have to spend their time reading out of date magazines in a waiting room full of sniffles.
  • Since TV, we have become used to learning from a screen. It’s a great teaching tool, and I have developed many props that make explaining things much faster. It’s as if you are the presenter and PowerPoint slide in one.
  • Sessions are much easier to close especially for the ‘sticky patient’ who has trouble with the session ending.
  • In a normal office visit, you see the patient and they see you. In a virtual session, you can see yourself, how you come across, and your facial expressions. Finally, you can see what your patient is seeing. Initially, it was a bit of a shocker. But like a golfer learning how to improve their swing, it’s very helpful to see yourself wind up and follow through from a third person perspective. In psychiatric training, you may watch a video of you interviewing, but with virtual care, you see yourself in real time. It has definitely improved my technique.
  • Face masks are a new reality for enclosed spaces. With virtual care I can see my patient’s face, and they can see mine. I can’t imagine someone crying vigorously while wearing a mask.
  • If direct physical procedures are not required, virtual care is the pinnacle of physically distanced medical care during a pandemic caused by an infectious agent.
  • Thankfully, it doesn’t come up often, but physician safety—especially when you’re alone in an office with a volatile, or dangerous patient—is much less of a worry with virtual care.

Disadvantages of Virtual Care

  • With some patients, especially those who live in close quarters, privacy has been a problem. They may take the call in their car, garage, bathroom, or behind a tree in their backyard. My office is very private and those clients prefer that environment.
  • Virtual platforms require solid Internet connections. Drops and disconnections do occur. I simply advise my patients at the beginning of the session that if we get cut off, we may have to use the telephone to continue the session. Luckily, this rarely happens.
  • Virtual care cannot replace direct patient contact for many necessary medical procedures at least with the present technology.

A Success Story with Virtual Care

My patients who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are all doing better. Initially, I didn’t know why. I think the physical separation and the virtual distanced format make them more comfortable, less triggered, more grounded, and able to focus on the psychological effects of their trauma. We can get to those psychological issues faster and achieve a deeper quality in the work. Therapeutic progress seems to be occurring twice as fast as office-based care. Interestingly, the men appear to be benefitting more from the virtual experience than the women. I think men are more comfortable sharing their feelings when they are not facing someone, especially another man. In office sessions, men don’t cry as much as women in therapy session. They do now in virtual care! Those patients have all asked me to see if we can continue with virtual care after the pandemic is over. I hope we can.

After an intense session with a patient with severe PTSD, I may worry about them getting home safely especially if they were very dissociated. That worry is gone. With virtual care I can quickly and easily check in with them and improve continuity of care. That ‘bridge’ between sessions is allowing the therapy to have a steadier flow. Patients are calmer and I feel more confident as a therapist.

Future Plans with Virtual Care

I am hoping that virtual care will be a substantial part of my psychiatric practice going forward. No more ‘snow days’, no more ‘empty hours,’ and a huge saving in time for patients with the elimination of transportation issues. As technology improves, I think this could surpass the ‘office visit’ as the gold standard for psychotherapeutic care.

It’s likely that there will be events in the future that will require us all to physically distance ourselves again. With a foundation of well-established virtual care, we will be ready to act immediately, and not be that lonely soldier standing guard in a battle that can’t be won. Virtual care is safe, easy, and the right thing to do.  

About the Author

Dr. Bhattacharya graduated from Memorial University Medical School in 1984. He completed his specialty training in Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Since 1989, he has been in private practice as a psychotherapist for individuals and couples. He has been married for 33 years, has three adult children, bikes and runs, and writes, records, and performs musically.

He is the author of two books:

CAKE   A Guide to Reciprocal Empathy for Couples 2006

Deep Fried Nerves   A Study of Burnout in Doctors 2016

Virtual Care: Preparing your staff and notifying your patients

Contributors include OntarioMD Practice Advisor Tania Hunt with recommendations from OntarioMD Physician Peer Leaders from our Virtual Care Webinar Series

With the onset of the COVID-19 , clinicians have quickly adapted to physical distancing with their patients and using virtual care to avoid unnecessary trips to the office. You may decide to make this change in how you practice medicine an ongoing option for your patients beyond the current global pandemic.  The change to a practice that offers virtual care options can be done easily and efficiently by selecting a virtual care platform that’s right for you and your patients. There are many virtual care tools on the market and the choices may seem overwhelming. OntarioMD has facilitated your review of virtual care tools available to Ontario clinicians by bringing them all together in one convenient spot, OntarioMD.News. This site contains lists virtual care tools for video visits, direct-to-patient interactions, virtual clinics, EMR-integrated tools, and more. The tools have been curated, but not endorsed by OntarioMD. Please contact the vendors directly for product-specific questions.

You may wish to delegate the task of finding a virtual care platform to one of your staff who will also be using the tools and you can also ask your family and friends for recommendations. Involving staff is an opportunity to keep them feeling needed and invested in any new tools for your practice. A critical success factor for virtual care is being able to network with colleagues on similar platforms for support and advice so you may wish  to select tools that colleagues in your social network, study groups, etc., are using.

The transition to offering virtual options might be challenging for some staff. You can leverage Zoom or similar platforms to train staff on the benefits of the virtual tools. You may also want to consider an Interactive Voice Response (IVR)system to route phone calls for staff working from home.

Before you adopt a virtual care tool, a good idea is to keep your schedule flexible when you start using it and until you and your staff get used to the tool. This will help to ease stress, give you and your staff space and plenty of time to learn from using virtual care tools. You can see what works well and how your patients like the tool.

One of the most frequent requests from patients is for online appointment booking. Online booking is a great way to introduce your practice and your patients to virtual care tools. Check out the options for an online booking platform. Online appointment booking will cut down on phone calls asking for appointments. This frees up your staff to do other things. You should allow for some same day appointments, and leave only options video or phone options for the patient to choose from. Work with a nurse or your admin to triage who you need to see vs. who you can treat over the phone or eVisit.

So you’ve prepared yourself and your staff to use virtual care tools. Now it’s time to notify your patients that your practice has gone mostly virtual. Your staff can implement the IVR and voicemail system so patients are informed that your clinic has gone virtual when they call. If your staff are booking appointments over the phone, ensure they ask the patient what virtual platform they would like to use (phone or video). If they are booking an appointment from your website, change your website to only show the video visit or phone visit options. Let patients decide which technology they are most comfortable with. Once an appointment is booked, have staff confirm the patient phone number and email so you have the most up-to-date information. It’s also a good idea at this point to obtain the patient’s consent in advance of the virtual encounter. This can be done by admin staff.

A consent statement that your admin can read to patients over the phone was prepared by OMA and OntarioMD Legal teams and vetted by the CMPA.  It should be posted on your website and in your office for your patients to read. You can also obtain consent by email. In both cases, record consent for each patient in your EMR. Instructions for how to obtain consent to initiate a virtual care encounter and the consent statement are available on OntarioMD.News.

If you use Facebook, a newsletter or another method to communicate with your patients, try and get the word out on how patients can reach you and provide links to resources if they have traveled outside of Canada or think they may have developed COVID-19 symptoms.

Search your EMR for patient email addresses and send a mass communication to notify patients of clinic updates, COVID-19 updates and that they can email you. This “keeping the door open” approach has proven to be popular with patients.

All the best as you move forward with your virtual practice.

This is part one of a two-part blog. Part two will focus on virtual care tips and tricks.