Technology is connecting us like never before. Yet, for the first time in history, human interaction–the core foundation to humanity–is being threatened. Patient-provider relationships are particularly at risk. A physician spends about 15 minutes with a patient, on average. From the moment the provider enters a patient’s room, there is one thing both are aware of: the ticking clock. This impedes the organic conversations both patients and providers yearn for.
So, what can we do to address this emerging threat to the in-person patient-provider relationship? One approach that is gaining popularity in the US primary care setting is group visits. Group visits have the potential to transform one-on-one patient-provider discussions into interactive, in-depth sessions where patients share their health experiences with their providers and each other. Group visits also offer patients practical tools they can take home right from their first visit.
Sessions typically run for one to three hours for a span of six weeks. Group visits typically begin with patients sharing their health condition with the provider and the group. The provider then leads the session. One of the unique advantages to group visits is the social support patients experience with other peers. Through open discussions during peer interactions patients are able to share their wisdom with each other and delve into root causes underlying their medical conditions. At their best, discussions build trust, camaraderie, and empowerment in patients, the foundation of any healthy community.
Safety-net or teaching hospitals largely implement group visits. Safety-net hospitals primarily serve populations facing multiple, intersecting disadvantages such as few financial resources, lack of access to health care, and disempowerment.
Group visits have the potential to transform one-on-one patient-provider discussions into interactive, in-depth sessions where patients share their health experiences with their providers and each other.
The good news is that group visits are effective in underserved populations, and have been shown to improve health-related quality of life and reduce stress, depression, and loneliness. Group visits have also been found to decrease emergency department visits in low income populations.
Group visits do come with challenges. The two most common challenges providers note are missed appointments and inconsistent funding. Missed appointments can be attributed to structural challenges such as a limited access to reliable transportation. Inconsistent funding can be a result of deficient political will. For example, Medicaid and Medicare seldom pay for group visits which puts a burden on both safety-net hospitals and the patients. The reality is that paying out of pocket for medical visits is the last thing in the mind for populations experiencing overlapping social barriers.
While telemedicine is gaining popularity, it is critical that we avoid confusing technological interventions with improved healing. If technological advancements are the panacea, why are rates of patient dissatisfaction continuing to increase? We need innovative tools that enhance human interactions rather than simply replacing them.
After all, many physicians go into service because they want to provide the human touch and care, which makes a patient feel human. As a health-care community, it is our responsibility to continue exploring innovative initiatives like group visits to preserve human connectedness and improve healing.