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Patel: The faceless future of health care

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As a medical student, I have a mental checklist of things I make sure to bring with me to the hospital: pen and paper, stethoscope, school ID, and as of late — a face mask. It has taken quite some time getting used to, but the face mask made its special debut at the start of the pandemic in clinics and hospitals around the country, and it has been here to stay ever since.

Even more so, recent news of the omicron variant has solidified essential mask-wearing policies in hospitals for the foreseeable future. This barrier between doctor and patient is medically necessary, but it creates other issues that the profession can and should address.

With the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans have been introduced to the idea of habitually using face masks. In other countries like Japan, seasonal mask-wearing is not only normal but often encouraged and a sign of respect for others. After all, as we have seen in the United States, mask-wearing has helped curb the spread of the seasonal cold and flu as well. This result of a decline in spreading infection can be seen in hospitals as well. It is frankly undeniable that face coverings have helped combat the spread of the SARS infection and is point-blank necessary for the health and safety of both patients and health care providers.

How strange though that I do not know what the doctor I have been working with for three months looks like. More importantly, how bizarre must it be for patients who are entrusting their care in the hands of doctors to not see their full faces.

In a previous research study looking at the impact of mask-wearing in surgeons, patients reported greater trust and better clinical outcomes when they were able to meet their surgeon without their face mask. Simply put, masks can be a barrier to a strong doctor-patient relationship, and they can also hinder effective communication — especially when considering elderly patients who are hard of hearing.

Communication, both verbal and nonverbal, is crucial for establishing trust, explaining complex concepts, and working with patients for shared decision-making and treatment plans. All these aspects are now challenged with the necessity of routine mask-wearing.

We find ourselves in a bit of a dilemma then: The use of face masks has been indispensable in the fight against the spread of infection, but as a result, health care has now become faceless. So, what do we do? Masks are crucial in the health care setting, but this does not mean we necessarily have to continue in this way.

Ultimately, I urge caregivers and hospital administration to consider the doctor-patient interaction from the patient’s view. Staying in the hospital, especially in times of the coronavirus, can be very isolating, and now more than ever, mental well-being and the level of trust patients share with hospital staff simply cannot be overlooked.

Seeing as we do not have a timeline for when, if ever, widespread mask-wearing in hospitals will phase out, we need to make sure we continue to address patients as people. It is time we begin to use clear face masks and place pictures of doctors and nurses in the patient rooms for those with extended stays. There are FDA-approved transparent face masks that offer an equal level of protection to traditional masks, without impeding visual communication.

This would not only support those patients with issues like hearing loss or children undergoing early language development, but it would also help the countless patients who are already anxious about seeking medical treatment. Ultimately, all patients need to be able to see and connect with their health care team to support a better health care experience, and it may be time that administration start to plan on the face masks to be here for the long haul.

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