Keeping patients safe and healthy has been on the top of all our minds throughout the pandemic, and using telehealth has been one of the best ways to continue to provide care while maintaining the safety of all involved. While there has been plenty of advice for patients to have a good visit, clinicians need to take measures to optimize their environment in order to protect their own health during the constant stream of virtual visits, said Michael Johns III, MD, director of the USC Voice Center at Keck Medicine of USC.

“Keeping our care providers healthy means more than just allowing for socially distant patient visits,” Johns said. “Clinicians’ hearing and vocal cords are important tools to protect in order to continue providing quality care, but are often the easiest self-care steps to overlook.”

The speech pathologists and audiologists of the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery offer a series of communication tips and best practices for physicians to follow while caring for patients.

Overall best practices

For all care providers who have transitioned to offering telehealth visits, this year has been a learning opportunity to create the best environment for a thorough telehealth visit. Standard tips for all types of telehealth visits include:

  • Reducing background noise;
  • Using a headset to improve audio;
  • Adjusting the lighting in the room;
  • Minimizing distractions;
  • Making sure to have a stable internet connection; and
  • Trying to be present in the moment, just like an in-person visit.

Keeping yourself safe: Protect your ears

When it comes to providing care, it’s easy to forget to take care of your own needs while watching out for others. During extended telehealth sessions, take the following precautions to protect your ears:

  • Monitor output levels, especially if the sound is higher to block background noise;
  • Take listening breaks; and
  • Use a headset and make sure it fits your ear comfortably. Noise reduction features can be helpful.

Keeping yourself safe: Protect your voice

Care providers who are accustomed to seeing patients all day are used to talking for extended periods of time. But where in-person support staff might help with reminders to stay hydrated or take breaks, a day of virtual visits could prompt a refresher of these basic tips:

  • Take short “vocal naps,” or breaks where you stop talking throughout the day;
  • Pay attention to how loudly you are speaking during visits. Background noise could be making you speak louder than you think and can lead to vocal strain;
    • Headphones that offer simultaneous feedback of your voice are extremely useful to keep your volume moderated;
    • Using a single ear bud can help you keep your voice volume at an appropriate level;
  • Warm up your voice with exercises like gentle humming, lip trills and straw phonation; and
  • Keep a hydrating beverage at your workspace and sip water throughout the day. Steam, a humidifier, nebulized saline or non-mentholated lozenges all can help keep up hydration.

Technology as a tool

While telehealth offers myriad benefits to both patients and providers, technology also should be harnessed to work for you. When it comes to serving patients and offering the best care, look at the following services to support communicating with your patients:

  • Several apps, websites and phone-based companies offer real-time transcription and speech-to-text services. Look into ones that are recommended by clinicians for HIPAA-compliance.
  • Digital index cards can offer prepopulated common phrases or statements that can benefit patients with hearing loss and communication disorders.
  • Headset technology has advanced to offer various features that will help improve telehealth appointments:
    • Noise cancellation features can reduce background noise;
    • Live microphone monitoring can offer feedback while talking; and
    • Independent control of microphone input and headphone output can reduce strain.

— Melissa Masatani