Published on 18th May 2020 by Premela


The anticipated rise of technology and AI in our healthcare systems has been a feature of many medical advancement articles.

However, the sudden and immediate use of technology that the COVID social distancing measures have embedded within healthcare, will continue to be transformative when our societies relax social distancing controls.

One example of this new technology is the triaging of patients using virtual consulting rooms, and often the ability to diagnose and manage that patient via a video interaction.

Virtual interactions with patients existed pre-COVID but their presence was scattered amongst innovative and progressive general practices or within private clinics. The widespread use of technology within the NHS and community settings is unprecedented.

One of the fundamental skills of general practitioners is being able to communicate on many different levels with their patients. Interpreting subtle verbal and non-verbal cues is essential and can help the clinician understand an individual patient’s need.

General practitioners are now having to adapt these skills to communicate with patients, and each other, on virtual platforms. This is why at the University of Buckingham Medical School we feel comfortable in converting our MMI interviews for medical school into digital MMIs; our selection procedures are mirroring the professional attributes and skills required of medical professionals.

This blog will help you to identify the key skills you should focus on to become an expert communicator at a distance.

1. Eye contact and active listening

All communication specialists will talk about eye contact and non-verbal communication skills, but technology makes it impossible to look directly at someone’s eyes, so how is this achievable in a video meeting?

In essence, it isn’t but it can mimicked:

  • Look directly into the camera and ensure the camera is positioned so you are not looking up at it. 
  • Get the software to help you by:
    • Positioning the screen of the person you most want to communicate with nearest the camera, so when you inevitably do look away from the camera at the person’s face, it doesn’t look like you are changing your focus.
    • Use a full screen and allow some distance between you and the camera so subtle changes in eye focus are less likely to be detected.
  • Deploy active listening techniques such as a head nod, shake or tilt to show that you are listening, whilst maintaining eye contact with the camera.

2. Body awareness 

Whilst thinking about your eyes, don’t forget the rest of your body. As in physical conversations, body language can provide non-verbal cues to your audience. 

  • Keeping your shoulders and head straight and square (apart from when active listening) embodies confidence. This approach should encompass the whole body by placing your feet firmly on the ground and stretching your back. 
  • Gestures can be effective in emphasising your point to your audience but ensure they are within the frame and not exaggerated but weighted, as poor connections can result in gestures appearing comical if poorly executed.
  • Arm crossing can be a natural stance especially when thinking about a situation, such as in an MMI, but this body language is often interpreted negatively by the audience. Refrain from crossing your arms and use armrests or the desk to support your posture.

3. Distractions

Distractions come in many forms and some are impossible to avoid but many, with appropriate planning, can be eradicated. 

  • Only have the video conference screen open. Close all other tabs and applications on your device.
  • Mute when not speaking at all times, therefore if a distraction occurs in your location it is only yourself, not the entire video audience, that is distracted. 
  • Declutter your frame – you do not need your audience to spot your cluttered desk or an interesting artwork behind you and focus on the distraction rather than the conversation. Virtual backgrounds can help with this if decluttering is not an option.
  • Close or even lock the doors to your room to avoid disturbances.

Overall, communicating at a distance is very similar to physical communication. You should embrace and understand the advantages of video conferencing technology and allow it to help you to communicate effectively at any distance.

Written by Dr Joanne Selway, Senior Lecturer and Selection Lead for the Medical School at the University of Buckingham

Other COVID-19 articles to check out:

5 Things To Do From Home To Support Your Medicine Application

Staying Motivated During Lockdown

COVID-19 – The Best Work Experience Alternatives


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