Invariably, glimpses into the future of health care attempt to shed light on how technology will continue to alter how and where we receive care. From apps that allow parents to skip waiting in the ED and give their kids remote ear examinations — I recently met someone working on a prototype for this very invention — to using the supercomputer Watson as a physician's assistant, as David Ellis has written about recently for H&HN Daily, it's clear the ever-quickening cycle of technological innovation in health care won't be slowing down any time soon.

But in addition to the onslaught of health care IT advances that get announced by the minute via Twitter, I've lately been noticing a counter trend in hospitals and other health care settings — a growing realization that low-tech, face-to-face or written communication with patients is an central, and often overlooked, part of the health care journey.

I started thinking about this during last month's Mayo Clinic Transform Symposium, when I caught up with Maggie Breslin, a senior designer and researcher for Mayo's Center for Innovation. We talked primarily about her work to rethink the patient encounter to allow for more two-way communication than currently exists, including the development of handouts with guidance on what patients should be asking their doctors.

"That can be incredibly difficult to do in a doctor's office because of the years of history and training that we've given patients not to say anything in there, " Breslin told me.

She had a somewhat surprising answer, though, when I asked her about building those tools out in an electronic medium.

 "I think the reality is that health care spaces aren't set up really well to share digital information," Breslin said. "…We do a lot of stuff in low-fi ways with paper, and as we prove that these things work … we can build out the same mechanisms in digital [mediums]."

It's been a while since I've heard someone advocate for paper and verbal communication with patients over, say, an online portal or a mobile app, but I thought it was a fairly keen insight — in other words, that while more communication is needed, the form doesn't necessarily have to be digital, and it may be best to start with a more low-tech encounter.

In addition to prompting patients to feel more comfortable expressing themselves, though, hospitals also need to have staff on hand who know how to listen. Theresa Mazzaro, a nurse recruiter for PeaceHealth Southwest Washington Medical Center in Vancouver, recently told me her hospital is increasingly interested in not just the clinical experience of potential hires, but also their behavioral tendencies and even their customer service backgrounds, all to identify clinicians who will truly connect with patients and listen to their concerns.

"They need to be able to understand the patient perspective," Mazzaro said of new hires.

Ultimately, I don't think the movement toward more sophisticated electronic communication and more face time are necessarily in conflict with each other. Instead, as more remote and IT-based care resources emerge, the face-to-face encounters that remain will be all the more important to both doctors and their patients. And it won't hurt to have staff on hand who know how to get patients to talk and then listen to what they have to say.

What's your hospital doing to improve communication with patients? Email your thoughts to

Haydn Bush is senior online editor for Hospitals & Health Networks magazine.