Email and your patients

June 10, 2011

A decade ago, a risk management consultant in Washington State predicted that "within the next few years all clinicians will be routinely using email as a communications tool in patient care."

It hasn't quite turned out that way.

Last year, CompTIA's Second Annual Healthcare IT Insights and Opportunities survey found that relatively few doctors take advantage of email or text messaging to communicate with patients-for instance, to send reminders about upcoming appointments. Twenty-four percent of doctors responding to the survey said their practices have Web portals that patients can use to access and print forms and other information, and 10% said they have Web portals that allow patients to view their medical records. Twenty-one percent of survey participants said they allow patients to email or text health-related questions, 18% said they offer online appointment scheduling, 12% said they email appointment reminders, and 5% said they send appointment reminders via text message.

For those physicians who have elected to respond to patient queries via email, the positives outweigh the negatives.

John K. Frederick, MD, a family physician in Austin, Texas, says, "We started using email through our portal just to stay with societal trends. Usually, folks use this medium to clarify whether a problem they are having needs an appointment, or for quick follow-up from a previous visit. This has not increased my workload and makes me a more timely and accurate physician.

"Rapid flow of information and decision-making with patients is consistent with how people live their lives now. It's how I live my life now."

Elizabeth A. Pector, MD, a family physician in Naperville, Illinois, and a member of the Medical Economics Editorial Board, has been communicating electronically with patients since the mid-1990s. "When we adopted eClinicalWorks as an integrated system, it made sense to include their Web portal," she says. "Patients like being able to ask me questions directly and also look at their lab results and schedule appointments. I get two to five queries a day and spend about 10 to 20 minutes answering them."