Virtual appointments don't have to be a nightmare. Trishna Bharadia provides her 5 top tips for successful teleconsultations with her multiple sclerosis (MS) healthcare team.
COVID-19 saw many multiple sclerosis healthcare teams and hospitals move to virtual clinics and remote consultations - my own included. It was a sudden, utterly unexpected change, and it meant people with the condition had to adapt how we prepare for our appointments.
Although things are returning to "normal,” many online consultations still occur. With that in mind, here are my top 5 tips for getting the most out of teleconsultations in your MS care.
Related: Navigating the ‘New Normal’ with MS
1. Ask how the consultations will take place
Ask your MS team about the format of your consultations. Will they be a regular telephone call? If so, do they have an up-to-date telephone number for you? What happens if you miss the call?
Or will it be a video consultation? What platform will they use? If you don't have experience with a particular platform, ask for help available for learning, tech support, and practice. And, remember to download the platform well ahead of any appointment in case something decides to glitch.
If a platform doesn't work well on your computer (or you can't get the hang of it after some practice), ask if there is an alternative option. You may be surprised by helpful your team can be! Not everyone is a whiz with technology.
Finally, find out how they'll inform you if the clinic is running late. Will that affect how you log in? Always have a backup plan in case of unstable internet connections, power failures or device crashes. Nothing is more important than your health! It could simply be a case of dialling an alternative number and letting someone know what's happened.
2. Prepare ahead of your appointment
Just like for an in-person consultation, it's vital to have all the information you need at hand. If you keep a symptom diary, have it with you - and make sure you've kept it up-to-date.
Your MS team may also ask you to perform some tests before the consultation, such as a timed walk or a nine-hole peg test. You may also have to fill out a questionnaire about your symptoms. Make sure you do these on time, as your doctor may need to refer to the results during your appointment.
If you have some questions you want to ask during the consultation, write them down beforehand, so you don't need to remember them. If possible, send them to the doctor first, so they can prepare the answers.
Knowing your appointment's structure will also help you keep on task. Email your MS team before the consultation and ask about the meeting's agenda. If you can't do this, ask your doctor at the start of your appointment.
3. Create the right environment
Lockdown was tough on everyone's concentration spans. Suddenly, many of us were expected to work from home, juggle family responsibilities, educate our children, get enough exercise, and attend remote appointments all at once.
It's been noted that our attention spans have altered during the pandemic. COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns left many of us in a constant state of "fight-or-flight" mode. Responsibilities we would usually portion throughout the day (such as looking after children, working, etc.) suddenly became continuous requirements. Our media consumption also left us with "information overload" that made it difficult to rationalise or think things through the way we usually would.
Related: Why Online Therapy Suits My Lifestyle with MS
While our concentration spans can and will improve, we can't expect them to immediately snap back to where they were 18 months ago. Many people with MS struggle with cognitive symptoms, such as memory, concentration, and problem-solving. With many of us also stressed and worried about COVID, isolating, and our overall health, it's not surprising our attention spans may have waned.
Still, we must focus on our remote consultations the same way we would at an in-person clinic. While it's tempting to multitask and catch up with our doctors while shopping, eating lunch, or out walking, a confidential consultation requires more attention. So, make sure you have a private, quiet space available for your appointment.
1. Minimise distractions
We've all been there. We're convinced the TV is just "background noise" and keep it on during conversations/appointments/work meetings. The next thing we know, we've missed crucial details because we're distracted by a mid-90s episode of Poirot.
Turn off the TV, put your mobile on silent (unless it's a telephone consultation), and tell your family you need a quiet environment.
2. Privacy is key
It's completely understandable if you don't want your doctor to see inside your home. Many video consultation platforms will offer a variety of backgrounds or a "blur" option. Play around with these before your consultation, and make sure you know what to do.
Headphones are also great if you don't want anyone to hear what the doctor says. They also work as a visual "do not disturb" signal, so investing in or digging out a set may be worthwhile.
If you don't want your household to overhear you, find the quietest room of the house. That may be your bedroom, office, or even your garden shed. Just make sure the room you choose has a good internet connection.
3. Keep children and pets occupied
We know how it goes. Your children have been angels for hours and hours, right until you need to take an important call. Then, suddenly, it's fights, demands, and noises you thought belonged to The Walking Dead.
If possible, see if your partner/sibling/friend can occupy children (or pets, if necessary) for the length of your consultation. That could be a walk, a quiet game, or even a trip to the sweet shop. A favourite (quiet) toy or video may keep them occupied and happy if that's not possible.
4. Pre-arrange any big jobs for the consultation
You may need to move furniture for tests such as a timed walk. Find someone who can help you move it for the examination and move it back afterwards.
Related: On the Move – Staying Active with MS
Life lessons suggest no one will be available last minute, so find a friend or family member to help when they know they'll be free.
5. Think about little things that could make your life easier
Not all of us have a personal laptop, and you may be using your phone for an e-consultation. If you have shaky hands, need to take notes, or want a hand free, consider a cheap tripod for your phone. They're lightweight, easy to use, and you'll be amazed at how useful they are.
If that's not possible, a stack of books works well as a temporary phone prop.
4. Decide who else you'd like in your appointment
Remote consultations may allow a loved one to "accompany you" on a video or telephone call. I live with my parents and, for in-person consultations, they will usually accompany me.
However, I've often thought it may be beneficial for my sister to join an appointment. As she lives so far away, that's never been possible with a face-to-face session. However, distance doesn't matter in a virtual world - a person can just join the video or call.
You may also need someone to help you with any tests. Ask a friend or loved one to help you beforehand, and clearly explain what they'll have to do during your test.
My final tip is to relax! Nerves are understandable, but these virtual appointments are still new for almost everyone.
Your tone of voice, body language, and eye contact are essential for building rapport in a virtual environment, so try to have as "normal" a conversation as possible.
Related: How Coronovirus Has Changed Our Healthcare
Likewise, if technical difficulties occur, don't stress out. We all have them - and especially over the last two years. Your sulky phone or laptop won't be the first occurrence for a remote clinic, and it certainly won't be the last.
Looking to the future, I can see remote consultations becoming an increasingly standard option in many MS clinics. If that's the case, I say the more practice we get, the better!
NPS-IE-NP-00382 March 2022