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The Doctor is In: Why You Might Be Avoiding Email — and Why You Shouldn’t

Nov 30 2015

The healthcare field can be a dichotomy — while it’s on the cutting edge of biotech advances, there are other tech areas where it lags. Take email: many providers remain reluctant to use it to communicate with patients, even though a survey from Catalyst Healthcare Research shows that 93% of patients would likely choose a physician who offered email communication.

Internal medicine manager Helena Farabella finds that patients in her practice love the convenience. “We have very busy phones, and the ability to send non-urgent emails allows patients to communicate on their own time without playing phone tag or languishing on hold.”

But many providers still have concerns about email. Here are some common objections and their antidotes:

1. It will be time-consuming

Not so fast: One study among physicians participating in a pilot program found that although 64% had expected the workload to increase, only 13% of respondents reported that it did.

Furthermore, email can save time in other ways: It allows patients to re-read a diagnosis or instructions, look up terms they don’t understand, and process the information in their own homes, which might lead to fewer questions.

2. Patients might expect answers too quickly

First of all, Farabella says that practitioners must convey that email exchanges must not pertain to an urgent matter.

In addition, physicians should create an auto-respond to alert patients to this effect and then set parameters for how often email is returned.  For example, “Your email will be acknowledged within 24 hours.” That sets expectations and can head off multiple messages.

3. I won’t be compensated

It’s true: insurance doesn’t pay for email consultations — yet — but in the Catalyst Healthcare Research survey cited above, approximately 25% of respondents said they would be willing to pay a $25 fee per email episode. Even though most practitioners won’t be collecting on their email communication, many see it as a way to keep their patients satisfied, which could translate into money in the bank.  

4. I might violate HIPAA

To adhere to the strong provisions guarded by the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), practitioners must rely on their IT department to implement multiple levels of encryption so that emails in either direction are secure. Providers should receive informed consent before sharing protected health information with patients through email, says Eric S. Swirsky, clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He adds that healthcare providers should avoid free email services, such as Gmail, that collect user information and share it with third parties. “However, even if secured email is used on the provider side, a patient’s information may still be at risk if patients are using free email services. The potential benefits and burdens need to be relayed so that patients can knowingly assent to them," he says.

5. There's no point

While there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting for many situations, email can be an excellent platform for non-urgent matters of all kinds.

According to Farabella, her practice utilizes email for medication refills, general questions to the provider, queries about test results, requests for insurance referrals, billing questions, appointment scheduling and more. The email becomes a permanent part of the patient's medical record, which makes it a superior form of communication to phone calls.


Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer covering business and consumer topics. She creates branded content for Fortune 500 companies, and her work has appeared on LearnVest, Costco Magazine, Forbes, and IDEA Fitness. Follow her @cathieericson.


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