Five-star hotels, casinos, restaurants and country clubs may spring to mind when you think of hospitality business. Experiences at these venues are typically fun, entertaining and leisurely. But what about hospitality in health care? A trip to the doctor can be involuntary, uncomfortable and downright unpleasant — the exact opposite of an ideal experience — where a doctor’s bedside manner can go a long way to put patients at ease.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, the use of telemedicine has exploded because of its convenience and safety. But to what extent does virtual hospitality play a role for patients? New research from Michigan State University and the University of Central Florida is the first to reveal how hospitable telemedicine is critical for patients to have positive emotional outcomes and feel empowered.

Headshot of associate professor Lu Zhang

Lu Zhang, associate professor of hospitality business

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for people all over the world. Patients are more eager than usual to seek humane help and support provided by health care organizations,” Lu Zhang, associate professor of hospitality business in the Broad College, said. “Thus, it is important to study patient empowerment and how the ‘kind and sympathetic’ gene in hospitality can help empower patients.”

The research paper, “The empowering role of hospitable telemedicine experience in reducing isolation and anxiety: Evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic,” was published in the latest issue of the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management. Yusi Cheng, Broad alumna and Ph.D. student at Central Florida, Wei Wei, associate professor of hospitality management at Central Florida, and Yunying Zhong, assistant professor of hospitality management at Central Florida, coauthored the paper alongside Zhang.

The researchers conducted a survey of 409 people who had video consultations sometime after February 2020, when the pandemic arrived in the United States. The team looked at various factors that could impact the perceived hospitality of the virtual doctor’s visit, including human–technology interactions and human–human interactions. Both types of interactions influence a patient’s emotional well-being and how they view their own competency and control to deal with their health conditions after a consultation.

“Perceived competency and control are two fundamental dimensions of empowerment,” Zhang said. “Both the tech side and the human side can increase perceived control and competence for patients, which further helps ease feelings of isolation and anxiety.”

In the study, human–technology interactions included how easy it is for a patient to set up the virtual appointment and even the audio clarity and image resolution during the visit. Human–human interactions looked at the doctor–patient relationship, including how trustworthy and responsive the doctor is and how sympathetic they are toward patients’ feelings and opinions.

“The findings of our study yield valuable implications for the role of telemedicine technology in people’s emotional well-being,” Wei said. “Aside from the technical aspect, the hospitality side of a telemedicine experience, which is often overlooked, significantly empowers patients during the current pandemic situation by making them feel more competent and in control. The heightened sense of empowerment further helps to alleviate people’s feelings of isolation and anxiety.”

The findings reveal that hospitality in virtual health care, on both the tech side and the human side, significantly empowered patients during COVID-19. In addition, age plays a role with these outcomes; the older a patient is, the more likely they will feel empowered based on a smooth technological experience and hospitable interaction.

“It is important to make sure that the technology is functioning well and easy to use,” Zhang said. “Our study also shows that bedside manner matters as patients these days expect doctors to meet both their medical and emotional needs — providing reliable diagnostic information, listening to their concerns carefully, and addressing their needs promptly.”

The researchers see a huge potential for hospitality to be embraced as an organizational culture by health care institutions, which would come with exceptional service and satisfactory experiences for all stakeholders. Their ideas for implementing this culture include partnering with hospitality professionals to offer trainings and innovative programs, as well as leveraging certifications and continuing education for doctors and health care staff to understand how hospitality makes a difference and ensure patients feel the warmth virtually.

In addition, Zhang says doctors should be communicating the benefits of telemedicine to patients so they can be aware of the positive emotional outcomes that are possible after a hospitable virtual consultation.

“One of the programs MSU offers, Teladoc, is a good example,” Zhang said. “In their email communication with patients, they list three benefits of virtual care: You can see the doctor from the comfort and safety of home; you don’t have to sit in a waiting room with other people, who may be infected; and you will have your doctor’s undivided attention — no rushing from patient to patient.

“While telemedicine technology has already been practiced in consultation and treatment for patients with chronic diseases and who are unable to physically present at the hospital, its use becomes especially significant and essential during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the enforcement of social distancing practices and people’s fear of uncertainty,” she continued. “Telemedicine offers patients an alternative to seeking medical assistance in a safe manner, and it provides patients with much-needed emotional support.”