Dr. Genevieve Brauning is a family medicine physician at Novant Health SouthPark Family Physicians

It’s time to think through our Doctor’s Office of the Near Future.  The reality is, our bustling Office of the Past will not be the right fit in coming months. 

We will need to provide patients with a visit that protects them against coronavirus spread and assures them that it is safe to return to in-office care. When restrictions on non-urgent care went into place, the vast majority of Novant Health office visits transitioned to video encounters. In fact, we did more than 70,000 visits in just weeks. This technology was just what we needed for the moment.  But video visits cannot meet everyone’s needs long-term.  On May 4, we will invite our patients back into our office spaces as we resume some clinic appointments

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You may be wondering, ‘Is that really a safe plan?’  I get it.  For over a month, we have been encouraging you to stay home and use video technology and now we are opening our doors.  Rest assured, we have planned carefully and thoughtfully.  The safety of our co-workers and patients is absolutely critical.  And continuing to delay office care could be risky to your long-term health.  We are ready for you… but things are gonna look and feel a bit different when you arrive.  Let’s take a tour.

Our waiting room is a minimalist version of its former self.  Gone are the plentiful magazines, re-usable clipboards, and cups full of pens for public use.  Gone too are most of the chairs - the ones remaining are spaced six feet apart. Just like you see at the grocery store, there are taped marks on the hardwood floors leading up to our check-in staff asking that you allow appropriate distance if approaching the counter. There is a faint smell of bleach that is sterile yet reassuring.

 In our new office, we have  electronic check-in that allows you to verify your insurance, update your personal information, and complete your co-pay from the safety and comfort of your own phone.  To reduce asymptomatic spread of coronavirus, we will ask that all patients wear a mask in our new waiting room and our staff will all be wearing masks too. The combination of masks, distance and bleach may feel impersonal compared to our Office of the Past.  That will be one of the sacrifices we will all have to make for our mutual safety. 

When an assistant brings you back from the waiting room for your visit, your time in hallways and common areas will be minimized.  Meanwhile, the space between patient and assistant in the exam room will be maximized.  Our ability to reduce close contact between assistants and patients will reduce our need to constantly replace precious personal protective equipment.    

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Just like everyone you have met in the office so far, I too, as a doctor, will be in a mask and gloves when I enter a patient’s room.  These less than 1 mm thick barriers over my face and hands feel burdensome.  In the past, I relied on facial expression, skin color, and body temperature to formulate a thorough assessment of my patients but in the near future, my senses are dulled. After years of working with patients in a certain way, doctors are about to make a fundamental change in their approach. We know this will be difficult for many of our patients, too. We will have to make do as best we can, together.

The upside… unlike a video visit, here in the office, I can finally hear your heart, press on your belly, and check your pulse.  I’ll be able to look you in the eye in a way that a video visit can’t quite accomplish. It may be the first time in months that someone who did not live in your home came within six feet of you.  It may feel strange, or uncomfortable, or quite a relief… for both of us.  After the physical exam, I will return to a distanced spot in the room to discuss our plan and get you on your way.

To wrap up your visit, we will lean on technology.  Coronavirus can survive 24-48 hours on paper so printed check-out summaries and appointment reminders will be provided only when necessary.  We will send as much as possible electronically. 

This new normal is going to take some getting used to on all sides as we ease back into office visits.  Learning new ways can be exhausting, frustrating, and painfully slow.  Starting now, we will need to practice patience with our patients and each other as we adapt and adjust. I’m guessing more changes lie ahead in our Doctor’s Office of the Near Future, and that further challenges await. Please know, we are prepared to keep you safe in our space and we will be delighted to see you when you arrive.

For the latest on the coronavirus, click here.

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