NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Should Physicians Use E-Mail to Communicate With Patients?

January 25, 2012

E-mail has been so commonplace for so long that some people consider it nearly obsolete.  But in the health care profession, its use for communications between doctors and their patients is still controversial, says the Wall Street Journal.

  • Opponents worry that doctors can't read patients by reading their e-mails.
  • They're also concerned about the security of e-mail communications, as well as doctors' potential liability for the content and results of e-mail exchanges.
  • Others say e-mail is a valuable tool in building a relationship between doctor and patient.
  • The security and liability risks, they say, can be managed, and shouldn't be allowed to stand in the way of providing an important service for patients.

Joseph Kvedar, founder and director of the Center for Connected Health in Boston, argues that e-mail should be used by physicians.

  • Kvedar says privacy can be protected to a great degree by encryption of e-mail messages, or by the use of secure messaging applications that are often a feature of a patient portal or the electronic medical records systems offered by physicians and hospitals.
  • In addition, e-mail helps build a trusting, caring doctor/patient relationship, which studies have shown is key to increasing the likelihood a patient will follow a doctor's advice, resulting in better outcomes.

Sam Bierstock, founder and president of Champions in Healthcare, argues that e-mail should not be used by physicians.

  • Bierstock notes that online communications eliminate the ability of physicians to interpret facial clues and other important signals, possibly diminishing the quality of care delivered.
  • Physicians also could lose control of a patient's care at a crucial moment: Patients may panic in response to an e-mail about their condition, run to the Internet for self-diagnosis, make incorrect assumptions, or forward e-mails to others for advice (which may be good or bad, from qualified or unqualified individuals).

Source: "Should Physicians Use E-mail to Communicate With Patients?" Wall Street Journal, January 23, 2012.

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