Bringing Health Services Into the 21st Century

Posted on 5.02.2012 by Lily

This article came out in December, but I wanted to talk about it as a follow-up to Amy’s post from a few months ago. Amy interviewed the courageously innovative Dr. Deborah Oyer, an abortion provider who has uploaded YouTube videos of herself describing abortion options in hopes of demystifying the information, counteracting the ubiquitous anti-abortion propaganda, and reaching those who may be afraid to actually call a clinic. These videos have received tens of thousands of hits; clearly, Dr. Oyer has figured out something very important about communicating with patients today.

And she’s not the only one. As covered by the Times, many organizations now offer sex ed services online and through text message. Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains runs a text-chat program that allows teens to get text responses to their anonymous questions. Other clinics and programs have found various ways to supplement the traditional classroom models with outreach focused in the main place where teens are already looking for information about sex. This is, for lack of a more eloquent word, awesome - and practically bursting with potential!

We badly need to adopt this 21st century-type thinking in abortion services. I can only imagine how many patients would take advantage of being able to ask their questions while “wrapped in the Internet’s comfy blanket of anonymity,” as Amy put it, (I love that line!) if we allowed them to text or email us. Or what if we posted videos where patients could take a virtual tour of the clinic’s waiting room, lab, counseling space, operating room, and recovery area? How about videos of staff introducing ourselves (as Dr. Oyer has also done), putting a human face on abortion provision and showing patients that we are not such scary monsters after all? What if the website explained the process of making an appointment so timid patients knew exactly what to expect when they picked up the phone? Hell, what if we allowed them to book their appointments online, and gave them all the necessary information right there?

Countless patients have confessed to me the fears that plagued them before they set foot in the clinic. Would we be mean? Would we judge her for x, y, z about her situation? Would the clinic be dirty? Were we a real, licensed medical facility? Would it be an actual doctor performing the procedure? Isn’t abortion so dangerous? Were we going to maim her, cause her to be infertile, give her breast cancer? (No, no, no, yes, yes, no, no, no, and no, for the record.)

It’s no wonder patients can be so freaked out about the clinic experience; many of them have been unfortunate enough to go to a so-called "crisis pregnancy center" first, or they’ve researched abortion online and found only anti-choice propaganda. Patients often express surprise and relief to find out that our staff is non-judgmental, helpful, and compassionate; that abortion is one of the safest medical procedures with minimal risks; and that, in general, the quality of care is very high. Of course every clinic and clinic experience is different, but many patients have told me that their abortion was by far the most positive experience they’d ever had with the health care industry.

All too often, patients navigate the United States health care system never expecting to be treated with compassion and empathy, or to be regarded as a fully integrated human being rather than as a set of body parts and symptoms. (See Kelly’s recent post for more about these all-too-common experiences.) It’s emblematic of the bigger picture of the health care disaster in this country, in which services are fragmented, insurance companies call the shots, patient-centered care is pushed to the back burner, and patients are left to struggle their way through however they can.

Obviously, online services won’t fix all these problems. But I think new media does provide unique opportunities to mitigate thorny access to good health care by allowing patients and young people to expand their health education and health literacy without ever stepping foot into a health care facility. And then, when they do need to go to the doctor, or hospital, or abortion clinic, they may well be better equipped and more empowered to be their own best advocate.

What ideas do you have for reaching patients online or through other types of new media? Can any fellow abortioneers or health care workers who offer online services speak about those experiences?