The doctors' lounge moves online

November 2, 2007

Tech Talk

Key Points

Feeling isolated, out of touch with colleagues? It doesn't have to be this way. A community of doctors who share your professional concerns is waiting to talk with you online.

A few years ago, I was ready for an electronic health record, and I also needed to hone my management skills in light of shrinking third-party reimbursements. I turned to online groups for a wider circle of help than I could find locally. Via the Web, doctors from all over the country guided me to an affordable EHR program. Meanwhile, members of an online group sponsored by the American Academy of Family Physicians provided me with tips on coding, billing, and personnel issues.

My world has grown immensely since my first dip in the digital ocean. I now belong to about 10 online groups for medicine, writing, grief support, and other personal interests.

Which online group is best for you?

Virtual communities come in some basic flavors. A bulletin board-also called a discussion board, message board, news group, or forum-is a website where you can read and post messages on a given topic. It's similar to a blog, an online diary where readers typically can weigh in with comments. In contrast, an electronic mailing list, or e-mail list, disseminates messages about a subject to list members. It's often called a listserv, although this term refers to a particular software program for e-mail lists. If you want the closest thing to a live discussion, try a chat room, where you can type and read messages in real time.

Depending on your schedule and personality, you may gravitate toward one type of communication channel over the other. Chat rooms supply immediate gratification, but because they're in real time, they hinge on your availability, which for doctors is iffy. You might experience mental strain tracking several topics at once in a busy chat room.

A bulletin board may be better for linear thinkers who prefer to follow one topic to its conclusion. Furthermore, you can visit a bulletin board whenever it's convenient and take your time crafting a response.

Like bulletin boards, e-mail lists also give you the luxury of reading and writing messages when you please. By automatically sending you messages, they spare you the effort of visiting a bulletin-board website. However, e-mail lists can trigger a flood in your inbox. I once came home to 500 unread messages, most of them generated by e-mail lists, after a one-week vacation! Tip: You often have the choice of receiving messages from an e-mail list individually or as part of a daily digest. Choose the digest format to reduce inbox congestion.

Online communities can give new directions

When virtual reality meets real life, amazing things can happen. In 2005, I participated in discussions on the AAFP e-mail list that spawned resolutions about fair coding and reimbursement by more than a dozen state chapters at that year's AAFP Congress of Delegates. Several doctors who had never been active in their state academies jumped into the fray-I was one of them.

As a result, a private-sector advocate was appointed and family physicians can now post health-plan complaints at an online AAFP clearinghouse. The e-mail discussions spurred the AAFP to press payers to reimburse office-visit codes submitted with modifier –25 when they're billed alongside preventive care codes.

In the process, I joined two committees of the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians. Having a finger on the pulse of my peers through an IAFP e-mail list helps me advocate for my colleagues more effectively.

Networking on the Web can also bring global opportunities. A member of an online medical writers' group encouraged me to submit an abstract for a conference in 2003. I happily traveled to Switzerland to give a presentation about Internet support groups, and while there, made friends with colleagues from Holland, Israel, and Germany. If you share your passion for medicine, computer technology, or practice management with others online, you, too, might become a guest speaker or columnist.

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