The Pros and Cons of Emails Between Doctor and Patients

Some physicians hesitate to let patients reach them via email

Doctors and therapists all have emails, but many physicians are hesitant to allow patients to contact them via email. 

A doctor sitting at his desk in thought
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Why Some Doctors Object to Patient Emails 

Some doctors say that email would take too much time out of an already busy schedule. In contrast, other doctors who have begun to have email contact with patients find that this modality actually saves time.

Doctors are also concerned about the confidentiality of email and the fact that email creates an electronic "paper trail" that may be used against them at some point. Hospitals and healthcare organizations have been split on whether emails between doctor and patient should become a part of the medical record. Some are now interpreting HIPAA regulations as requiring the inclusions of these emails into the medical record.

Why Patients Prefer Email

A whopping 93% of patients prefer doctors who communicate via email. In a study carried out by Kaiser Permanente, more than one in three patients stated that email communication with their physician reduced phone contacts or office visits, while one in three also reported an "improvement in overall health" after emailing their provider.

AMA Email Guidelines

The American Medical Association developed a set of standards to guide physicians in their email communications with patients. These guidelines include the suggestion that doctors "establish a turnaround time for replying to messages from their patients;" "exercise caution when using e-mail for urgent matters;" communicate their email policies and procedures to patients (including letting patients know who else will have access to messages) and letting patients know that their messages might be included in their medical record.

Doctors are also encouraged to "acknowledge that they received patients' e-mail and ask them to acknowledge that they have read clinicians' messages".

What Patients Should Consider About Emails

Patients should consider the following points:

  • Ask your doctor or therapist his or her policy on email communication and abide by that policy.
  • If email is allowed, email only when you have a real concern and keep messages short.
  • Be aware that email is not completely confidential and that your email may be printed and placed in your chart.
  • Do not use email for urgent communications. Use the telephone. You usually have no idea how quickly your email will be read.
  • When you get a reply, acknowledge that you read it and, if appropriate, that you are acting on the suggestions. Do not try to start an ongoing email conversation unless there are legitimate unaddressed issues.
  • Don't forward jokes or witty sayings to your doctor or therapist. If you have found an article that you think particularly applies to you, consider forwarding only the URL (web address).

Email can become a convenient way to communicate brief information between visits if used with care. A telephone call usually interrupts something. A therapist or doctor can read and reply to email when he or she wants to. Limits may need to be set with certain patients, similar to limits that are frequently set on telephone calls. At some point, email communication between doctors and patients will be as common as telephone contact. We have a long way to go.

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Article Sources
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