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Barrier or Blessing: Should Patients and Providers Use Email for Healthcare Communications?

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

txt msgThere’s a lively discussion among doctors and healthcare providers about communicating with patients via email. We’re not talking about the use of occasional and informative broadcast “eNewsletters” (a common healthcare marketing tool) that are sent from a practice or hospital to a list of opt-in patients.

This is the arguable notion that a one-to-one email exchange between a doctor and a patient is useful, appropriate and/or beneficial—or not. Where do you come down among the three most obvious camps?

There’s the PRO camp that, in part, sees email as a relationship-building tool. The CON crowd feels, among other things, that there’s a filter-factor. And then there’s the OTHER group—probably the biggest bunch—who are watching and listening with interest.

We’d like to hear from everyone. Private practice physicians and surgeons are in the forefront, but hospital marketing and public relations professionals, medical practice administrators and managers, as well as patients and prospective patients will have a range of views and ideas.

Two such voices—each with differing and thoughtful perspectives—squared off in this recent article in The Wall Street Journal. Many of the issues, both for and against, are fairly well known. But both of the contributing medical doctors—Joseph C. Kvedar and Samuel R. Bierstock—present an articulate springboard for further discussion. Are you persuaded?

YES: It builds trust, says Dr. Kvedar. Among the points to consider…

  •  Healthcare professionals are behind the curve, perhaps the last to adopt email to communicate with the people they serve.
  • Patients are disadvantaged because email could help improve the quality of care.
  • Concerns about privacy are overblown and can easily be resolved.
  • Robust, clear and frequent communications [between provider and patient] builds a trusting, caring relationship with prospectively better outcomes.
  • It’s good for business via improved office efficiency and patient retention.

NO: You miss too much, says Dr. Bierstock.

  • Online communications eliminate the ability to interpret [silent] signals and diminish quality of care. The risk of misunderstanding is real.
  • Beyond basic [administrative] matters, such as appointment scheduling, it is no way to practice medicine.
  • The concept of relationship building that results in better care is too much of a generalization.
  • Liability is a real concern. There is no shortage of attorneys willing to take on a case no matter how ludicrous the claim.
  • Privacy issues are not easily dismissed. There’s no guarantee that messages will remain private.

AND don’t miss the back and forth range of reader comments. Some examples…

“It is silly to think that less communication is better because some email communication might not be perfect. This assumes that face-to-face communication is all that accurate to begin with, and its not.”

“I have had an e-mail, phone and fax-based medical practice for about nine years. [It] is far more efficient… and I can accept more patients and lower their costs with these efficiencies.”

“We've all heard stories of the guy who went in with in ear ache and ended up with a vasectomy. So much for doctors reading patient reactions!”

Are doctors sadly lagging in the use of email that would improve patient care, or is email communications an inappropriate channel that’s never a substitute for face-to-face interaction?

Tell us about your experience—pro or con, good or bad—and join in this discussion. Patient, provider, healthcare marketing professional….your comments are welcome below.

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