Physicians: Get Over Your Fear of Electronic Messaging

Gienna Shaw, August 3, 2010

The more effectively patients and physicians can communicate the better healthcare will be. And that includes better electronic communications, such as by e-mail. Yes, I understand doctors’ concerns that it would take up too much of their time—uncompensated time at that—and expose them to liability and leave an electronic trail of typos. But I believe that deep down inside they also know it is the right thing to do.

Almost every non-healthcare business uses e-mail to communicate with its customers (and it’s probably safe to drop the modifier “almost” on that one). And we know that most patients would like the option to e-mail their doctor.

Resistance from physicians is hard to overcome, but one recent study might give them a push in the right direction. In a study of 35,423 people with diabetes, hypertension, or both, the use of secure patient-physician e-mail messaging was associated with a statistically significant improvement in effectiveness of care during a two-month period, according to a Kaiser Permanente study published in the July issue of the journal Health Affairs.  Effectiveness was measured by the Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set.

In addition to better care, other findings that might sway physicians include:

  • An improvement of 2.0 to 6.5 percentage points in performance of other HEDIS measures such as cholesterol and blood pressure screening and control.
  • The ability to replace some outpatient visits, this improving the efficiency of care.
  • Physicians participating in the study said they were not overwhelmed by a large number of e-mails. Earlier studies showed that physicians received two to 12 messages each work day and responding to each took an average of 3.5 minutes.
  • Message threads were shorter than one might think, too—on average, exchanges contained just slightly more than one patient message and one physician message.
  • Most patient-generated emails were not frivolous: 63% required clinical assessments or decisions and 24% required clinical action such as ordering a lab test.
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