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Using E-mail to Communicate With Your Doctor

Reviewed Sep 25, 2012

Summary

  • facilitates two-way communication
  • messages can be saved or printed
  • aids retention and clarification of medical advice

Studies have found that although large percentages of people use e-mail generally, many fewer go online specifically to communicate with their health care providers. Increasing numbers of people, however, want to exchange e-mail messages with their doctors—more than 60 percent of patients, according to one 2012 Harris Interactive poll. Using e-mail to communicate with your doctor can have many benefits, if both parties adhere to guidelines.

Benefits of using e-mail

E-mail may provide the fastest and easiest method for you and your doctor to exchange information. Even if you use e-mail often at work or at home, you might not have considered the benefits of using it in health care-related matters.

  • E-mail can help facilitate two-way communication with your health care provider.
  • E-mail messages are less likely to fall through the cracks at a busy doctor’s office than telephone messages.
  • E-mail is self-documenting, unlike telephone conversations or in-person discussions. Messages can be saved or printed.
  • E-mail helps avoid telephone tag; both parties can write and respond on their own time.
  • E-mail follow-up aids retention and clarification of medical advice. Messages also can include links to sites containing additional information.

Doctors’ perspectives

As with patients, relatively small numbers of doctors report using e-mail to communicate with their clients. Some doctors still may not feel comfortable with the technology and others cite fears about increasing amounts of unbillable time spent answering a flood of e-mail messages. Practitioners also may have concerns about incorporating e-mail into the office workflow. However, many doctors report feeling positive about using e-mail in some situations.

Ask about e-mail use

Health care organizations differ in the methods they adopt to communicate with patients. The best way to find out whether you can use e-mail is to ask, says Daniel Sands, MD, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who has written extensively on the subject. If your doctor uses e-mail, reassure her that you will adhere to the rules her office has established. If your doctor does not use e-mail, ask why. You might suggest that e-mail could improve communication, and that it can be used safely and effectively. Let her know you would be willing to try it out with her to increase her comfort level.

Guidelines for using e-mail with your doctor

If your doctor uses e-mail, remember to respect the rules. Keep these guidelines in mind also:

  • Do not use e-mail in emergencies. You cannot be sure when your doctor will receive and read your message.
  • Use e-mail appropriately according to the situation. Requests for prescription refills or lab results, appointment reminders, insurance questions and routine follow-up inquiries, for example, often are well-suited for e-mail.
  • Remember that your e-mail messages may not be secure or private. Federal law requires physicians to protect sensitive health information in all electronic correspondence, but it is possible that people other than your doctor—authorized or unauthorized—may see your messages. Do not include confidential information.
  • Take time in wording your messages to prevent misunderstandings.
  • Think of your e-mail messages as permanent. They can be saved or printed out by either party, so keep that in mind as you write.
  • Do not clog your doctor’s inbox with jokes or chain e-mail messages.
  • Only send e-mail messages to your doctor when necessary. Do not overwhelm him with continuous strings of messages.
  • Use descriptive—but discreet—subject headers. Some doctors prefer that you include your name and patient number or social security number in the subject line.
  • Establish a turnaround time for replies with your doctor so you know what to expect.
  • Keep copies of all e-mail transactions with your health care providers.
  • Make your messages clear, direct and concise. Do not send long, rambling messages and avoid using irony, sarcasm or harsh criticism.
By Kristen Knight
Source: American Medical Informatics Association Guidelines for the Clinical Use of Electronic Mail with Patients; About Mental Health Resources (http://mentalhealth.about.com/); Harris Interactive (www.harrisinteractive.com/); NBC Video Health Network (formerly Healthology Inc.) (www.healthvideo.com); HealthWeek (www.pbs.org); Internal Medicine Associates (www.ima-md.com/index.html); Journal of Medical Internet Research (www.jmir.org); PubMed (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?db=pubmed); University of Florida Office of Medical Informatics (http://medinfo.ufl.edu/); Patt MR., Houston T.K., Jenckes M.W., Sands D.Z., Ford D.E. Doctors Who Are Using E-mail With Their Patients: A Qualitative Exploration, Journal of Medical Internet Research 2003;5(2):e9; American Medical Association Guide to Talking to Your Doctor ed. by Angela Perry, MD. John Wiley and Sons, 2001; Working with Your Doctor: Getting the Healthcare You Deserve by Nancy Keene. O’Reilly, 1998.

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