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Why Does My Doctor Have That Look on Her Face?

And other strange experiences with telehealth.

They say “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and that has certainly been true during this pandemic. The advent of telehealth physician visits has allowed many people to receive treatment without leaving their homes.

Now that this approach has become standard, the healthcare industry expects it will be a game changer for many patients. Telehealth will facilitate more efficient follow up for those who cannot travel easily to an office, including the elderly, chronically ill or disabled. Telehealth will make it easy to check on patients more frequently without requiring extra trips for an in-person visit. But telemedicine has some down sides that it is worth noting in order to manage our expectations.

Why is my doctor suddenly scowling?

You re in the middle of a telehealth appointment and your doctor says she is going to check on your lab results. Her face morphs from the usual friendly expression to a frown. Your heart begins racing as you imagine all sorts of dire scenarios, from cancer to sepsis.

The more likely explanation for the grimace you believe you see is that she is looking through several lines of test results and mentally processing what’s there. In traditional face-to-face visits, your doctor would probably looking away from you at the computer screen to read lab results. From your new vantage point, looking at your screen, you can watch her face as she’s reading her screen. Try not to read too much into a facial expression before your doctor actually speaks.

Why is this telehealth visit causing me more stress?

When email became a widely-used business tool about 25 years ago, we learned that one of its limitations was that it was harder to read the tone of a message when it was separated from voice and facial cues. One would expect that with telehealth, that would not be the case.

Unfortunately, telehealth has more in common with email than it seems at first glance. While you may be able to see and hear your physician, it is not the same as in person encounters. Technology is far from perfect, and telehealth calls, like Zoom and other types of remote meetings, experience repeated glitches. The screen is rarely a perfect representation of your doctor’s face, and you may find yourself constantly trying, unsatisfactorily, to read his expression. This is stressful because you are looking for clues about your health in a face you cannot see clearly. And the stress gets compounded every time the connection sputters and your doctors face freezes on the screen for a few seconds.

Telehealth has pioneered a new frontier with many exciting possibilities for patients. But like any new frontier, the going can be a little rough for the first brave souls who travel there.

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