Tele-dos and tele-don’ts for a good webside manner

4 minute read

Diplomas are in, dishwashers and doonas are out. 

Don’t do telehealth from your kitchen, bedroom or sex dungeon – it puts patients off.  

That’s the conclusion of this new study out of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, which surveyed over 1200 people about the backgrounds they prefer to see behind their doctor while discussing intimate health issues.  

OK, the researchers didn’t actually include a sex dungeon among the presented options but it’s a safe bet it wouldn’t score highly, judging from the other findings.  

The explosion in telehealth during covid, like most explosions, was rapid and caught people unprepared. Etiquette around remote consultations did not come naturally to all.  

We’ve heard about the patients who take telehealth calls from paddocks and shopping centres and worse. While many doctors have complained that they can’t get as much information about a patient when seeing them virtually, you could argue that these choices speak volumes. 

But what about doctors?  

There’s less evidence (that the Back Page could find) of clinicians needing to be told to conduct appointments in professional surroundings, even in the absence of training or official guidelines around “webside manner”.  

But just in case, the U Michigan team got its 1200 participants (all patients from two clinics in Ann Arbor) to rate images of doctors against seven backdrops:  

  • solid colour (navy blue) 
  • examination room (showing a bed) 
  • physician office (shelves and in-trays) 
  • office displaying diplomas 
  • home office (shelf of serious reference books) 
  • kitchen (white and clean) 
  • bedroom (hotel-like)  

Patients said which they liked best, and a composite score from 1 to 10 (10 being the best) was calculated across six domains: how knowledgeable, trustworthy, caring, approachable, and professional the physician appeared, and how comfortable the physician made the respondent feel.  

The diploma background was the most popular, with 35% rating it their favourite, followed by physician office on 18%. Only 3.5% preferred the bedroom (… weirdos) and 2% the kitchen.  

The diploma wall also had the highest composite score of 7.8. The solid colour and other professional backgrounds scored around 7.7. The bedroom (7.2) and kitchen (7.0) scored signicantly lower.  

Is this surprising?  

When having a private conversation about our symptoms or wellbeing, there’s an understandably strong preference to be reminded we’re talking to someone qualified and professionally detached, not some random stranger sitting in their bedroom.  

Or garage, or garden, or man cave, or plunge pool etc.  

Your personal traits and lifestyle, or the fact you have a family to whom you’ll say at dinner “You’ll never believe what a patient told me today” are not what a patient wants to think about when divulging private details – the Back Page would rather talk to a robot.  

This Medscape story about two earlier studies on the same question – which opens with an anecdote about the power of a single peaky-looking house plant to blow your rapport to shreds – has a handy list of dos and don’ts for your surroundings and your attire, including: 

  • doors should be closed to create an impression of privacy  
  • blurred and virtual backgrounds make the patient wonder what you’re hiding  
  • patients love white coats (this is a US readership) but the stethoscope is taking it too far  
  • books make you look smart, unless the titles are Vladimir Putin: Life Coach or Knitting with Dog Hair 

Your self-published trilogy of space erotica should probably also stay in another room along with pets, children and any other reminders that you have an actual life outside medicine.  

Send fake diplomas and real story tips to 

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